Lockdown Woes: The Dismal State of Domestic Workers in India Commentary
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Lockdown Woes: The Dismal State of Domestic Workers in India

On 24th March, 2020, the Government of India announced a lockdown throughout the nation in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the largest such lockdown globally. With each passing day of the lockdown, India like other countries, is witnessing a rise in cases of domestic violence against women. In India however, the scope of these victims changes in line with the socio-economic contexts peculiar to Indian society. Indian media coverage has failed to focus on the violence faced by ‘live-in’ female domestic workers during this lockdown, who have historically faced a large threat of violence and abuse at their employers’ homes.

The present lockdown will only aggravate instances of abuse against them – which have mostly remained undocumented owing to the private nature of their job. Throughout this article, we wish to discuss the general lack of strong legislative protection for domestic workers in India and how this void makes them vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of their employers. Unlike other victims, these workers do not have any effective redressal mechanisms against such abuse. Using the present circumstances of the lockdown, we wish to remind the government to take up the oft-deferred task of legislating on the rights of domestic workers on a priority basis.

Domestic workers are one of the most unorganized and informal classes of workers in India. As per government estimates, there are approximately 4,000,000 domestic workers in India. Out of this, around 2.6 million workers (65%) are female. There are of course, different kinds of domestic workers in India. First there are those who shuffle between multiple houses in a day and may have fixed working hours and activities at each house. Then, there are those workers who live at the employer’s house itself. Their work hours are 24/7 and they are required to do all household work that may possibly come up at any time of the day. The latter category of workers are referred to as the ‘live-in’ workers.

In light of the current lockdown, while a few of these live-in workers may have found their way back to their homes in small towns and villages, a large number of them still remain behind at their employers’ houses. This may be attributed to a number of reasons. First – the large scale suspension of public transport services, which is the only viable and affordable means of travel for them. Second – the apprehension of being exposed to infection on long and tedious journeys back to their hometowns. Third – and most importantly – pressures exerted by employers upon the workers. Lockdowns mean having the entire family staying together under one roof for prolonged periods of time. This results in increased volumes of household chores. Employers may pressure the workers to stay back either by threatening to terminate their services, or by refusing to grant them paid leaves. Some may also entice the workers with a higher pay. The needs and interests of workers are thus exploited to place workers in a dilemma between their health on the one hand, and their livelihood on the other. Needless to say, a majority of them choose the latter and are thus prevented from leaving their employers’ homes.

Since domestic work is largely confined to private households, it is shielded from public scrutiny. Such privacy lends itself to increased vulnerability of domestic workers to physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Examples of verbal abuse may be offensive language, disrespect and making lewd remarks. Physical abuse may range from touching without consent, groping and fondling to manhandling, confinement, physical torture and rape.

In 2014, the Indian Government released records relating to violence against maid servants across the country. These records showed a steady rise in the number of reported cases annually. Not surprisingly, states with large metropolitan cities such as Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu witnessed the highest number of registered cases. In June 2018, the Martha Farrell Foundation undertook a survey about sexual harassment among domestic workers in South Delhi. An overwhelming 92% of the survey’s respondents recognized the different kinds of sexual harassment as happening around them, however only 29% admitted to actually having faced it themselves. Such reluctance in complaining may be attributed to illiteracy, lack of legal awareness, the fear of losing one’s livelihood and the shame and stigma associated with talking about such sensitive issues.

The circumstances of a lockdown only worsen the plight of domestic workers. If such abuse is considered routine for them on any regular day, one can only imagine the magnitude to which their problems may be aggravated in times when citizens are ordered to stay within the confines of their house. As necessary as the lockdown may be, it has effectively snatched away their means of escape and muffled any outlet for protest.

Our discussion above yields an important question: how could we have avoided such a situation? Historically, there has been a plethora of discussion about introducing a stronger rights-based regime for domestic workers in India. However, till date, no such policy or legislation exists. Presently in India, there exist two pieces of legislation that concern themselves with domestic workers. These are the Unorganised Workers’ (Social Security) Act, 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

The former fails in guaranteeing basic rights to domestic workers and its enforcement has been largely ineffective for them. The latter fails to tailor itself to the peculiarities of the domestic work profession, and is thus inadequate in trying to address the grievances of domestic workers. The domestic worker continues to be denied the status of a rights-bearing individual. Neither of these pieces of legislation discusses the need for minimum wages, or the need for an easy and accessible grievance redressal mechanism against abuse, exploitation and violence.

In 2011, the then Ministry of Labour and Employment released the first ‘National Policy for Domestic Workers’. However, this was held up in a Parliamentary Standing Committee and was ultimately retracted by the Ministry. In the same year, India signed the ‘Domestic Workers Convention, C189’ of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Article 5 of the Convention states – “Each Member shall take measures to ensure that domestic workers enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.” Apart from this, the Convention aims to grant certain basic rights to domestic workers, such as fair wages, regulated working hours, equal bargaining power, access to grievance redressal mechanisms, social security and most importantly, a dignified and recognized employment identity. Unfortunately, India has not ratified this Convention to date, stating reasons that the national laws and practices in India are not in conformity with the provisions of the Convention. It is interesting to note that close to a decade after the Convention was adopted, only 29 UN member states have ratified it.

Subsequently, there have been multiple efforts to pass a National Policy. In 2016, Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, introduced the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Bill in Parliament as a private member’s bill. In 2017, the National Platform for Domestic Workers – an association of multiple domestic workers’ unions – released the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill. Both of these bills were comprehensive in guaranteeing the necessary rights and securities to domestic workers. Needless to say, neither of them has seen the light of day.

Finally in 2019, the Government announced that a draft National Policy on Domestic Workers was under consideration. This policy seems to show some promise in recognizing the domestic work profession and affording certain basic rights to these workers. According to its stated objectives, domestic workers will be ensured the right to minimum wages, protection from exploitation and access to appropriate redressal mechanisms, among other things. While this was announced in June 2019, it is not clear when the Policy will actually be turned into full-fledged legislation. There has also been no word from the Central Government regarding the policy since.

The issue being raised here is not a new one. Successive governments have kept deferring the task of passing strong legislation for the rights of domestic workers for too long. If it was handled effectively earlier, then probably this first-of-its-kind lockdown being witnessed today would have been a lot easier for domestic workers across the country.

As preliminary reports already suggest, a surge in domestic violence complaints at the end of the lockdown seems inevitable. A lot of such complaints of violence, abuse and harassment may also want to be lodged by domestic workers against their employers. However, their efforts in doing so will be hindered by the lack of any efficient legislation equipping them to systematically seek redressal for their grievances.

Regardless of the time lost, this lockdown must act as a reminder, and serve the important purpose of prompting the government to take this matter up with utmost urgency. Effective permanent legislation must be rolled out at the earliest opportunity. This will help cement the identities of domestic workers as rights-bearing individuals, and uphold the dignity of their services, leading to their true emancipation in the future.

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Mustafa Rajkotwala is a B.A.LL.B candidate at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. His research interests include public policy and disability rights.

Rahil Mehta is a BA.LL.B candidate at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. His research interests include human rights discourse and reforms in criminal law.


Suggested citation: Mustafa Rajkotwala and Rahil Mehta, Lockdown Woes: The Dismal State of Domestic Workers in India, JURIST – Student Commentary, May 6, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/rajkotwala-mehta-domestic-workers-covid-19/

This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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