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Domestic workers need solid laws, not a wishy-washy policy

Sujata Mody | Updated on: 18 August 2015, 1:00 IST

The policy

  • The govt last week announced a draft policy for domestic workers
  • But a policy can\'t be enforced; what is needed is a law
  • The govt must present a timetable for legislation to regulate work & wages

The Pitfalls

  • Define domestic work so that contractors can\'t blur the line
  • Regulate placement agencies, even those sending workers abroad
  • Ensure fair working conditions, wage, social security
  • Put in place grievance redressal mechanisms; let them bargain collectively

At stake

  • Some 5 million workers & an ecosystem on which the entire middle class depends

The Union Minister for Labour, Bandaru Dattatreya, announced last week that the Government of India is drafting a policy for domestic workers. The issue, concerning over 5 million workers, has been before the government for quite some time.

Neither the previous government nor the present one - in its 15 months at the helm - has done much to address the exploitation of domestic workers.

This government has reinforced its predecessor's stand of not ratifying the ILO (International Labour Organization) convention that forms the rubric for protection of domestic workers. The present government has, in fact, confirmed that it will not ratify ILO's domestic workers convention No. 189 (C 189) on decent work.

The proposed policy, though a step forward, is far from providing legal protection to domestic workers.

A policy is only a guiding principle, and not legally justiciable. Hence, the policy should have a specific timetable for preparing legislation, to regulate work and wages of domestic workers, and for implementing it.

Based on news articles on the proposed policy, it is reasonable to conclude that what is on offer falls far short of the expectations of domestic workers and their trade unions.

A meaningful law needs

Definition of Domestic Worker: There is no mention of the definition for domestic workers, leaving the term open to undermining the invisibility of this work.

The fact that it is difficult to prove employment relations in a household, makes it essential to build a process of registration of domestic workers by a government agency, thereby establishing their legal identity.

This is also needed to enforce the employment contract between a domestic worker and an employer so that there is a viable mechanism for establishing an employer-employee relation in domestic work.

The draft policy, however, includes the possibility of a third-party intermediary between the employers and the workers that is not clearly defined. This opens up the possibility of private agencies acting as labour contractors, hence blurring the existing direct employer-employee relation.

Regulation of Placement Agencies: Registration of placement agencies should be mandatory under the Shops and Establishments Act, 1953, till a suitable legal mechanism is formulated to monitor such agencies.

This mushrooming of such agencies in urban centres has already led to a spurt in human trafficking, child labour, physical and sexual abuse, and denial of just wages.

The regulation should include overseas employers and placement agencies 'supplying' workers to overseas employers.

The new policy is opaque on the nature of third-party intermediaries between workers and employers. It seems to be institutionalising a framework of control of domestic workers by placement agencies.

The policy and the legislation should ensure adequate machinery and procedures for the investigation of complaints, alleged abuses and fraudulent practices concerning the activities of private employment agencies in relation to domestic workers.

Conditions of Work: Given the specificity of the employment, the policy should explicitly ensure that domestic workers - like any other worker - enjoy fair terms of employment as well as decent working conditions. If they reside in the household, decent living conditions should be provided that respect their privacy and hours of work.

Specifically, it should include strict provisions on sexual harassment in consonance with the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act and provisions to prevent child labour.

Embed_AFP PHOTO/ Manpreet ROMANA_Domestic worker

Domestic worker and author Baby Halder works in the kitchen of her employer Professor Prabodh Kumar in Gurgaon. When Halder found work as a maid for a professor, little did she realise that she would turn into a celebrity author. Halder's memoirs, translated from her native Bengali, have appeared in a book entitled "A Life Less Ordinary." Photo: AFP PHOTO/Manpreet Romana

The employment contract should specify:

  • the names and addresses of the employer and the worker
  • the address of the usual workplace or workplaces
  • the starting date and, in case the contract is for a specified period, the duration
  • the type of work
  • the remuneration, method of calculation and periodicity of payments
  • the normal hours of work and overtime payment
  • paid annual leave of at least 1 month, and daily rest periods and weekly off
  • the provision of food and accommodation, if applicable
  • the terms of repatriation, if applicable
  • terms and conditions relating to the termination of employment, including any period of notice by either the domestic worker or the employer

Grievance Redressal: The government said there would be a grievance redressal mechanism, but we are not aware of its contents.It should include specific punitive measures for violations of the provisions of this policy.

This will provide a basis for filing complaints in cases of violation, empowering domestic workers to seek redressal.

The policy should also put in place specific measures to ensure that domestic workers, either by themselves or through their union, have effective access to courts and other dispute resolution mechanisms.

The govt proposes a minimum wage of Rs 9,000; all trade unions have sought Rs 15,000; can the govt say why is that not possible?

Social Security: Domestic workers must be brought under the coverage of the Provident Fund Act and the Employees State Insurance.

Inspection of Workplace: The policy should also include specific measures for labour inspection, enforcement and penalties, given the special characteristics of domestic work making it in many instances even invisible and hence more exploitative.

Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining: Finally, in accordance to the spirit of C189 of the ILO, the policy and the legislation should clearly create conditions to promote freedom of association and collective bargaining of the domestic workers.

The stated minimum wage of Rs 9,000 for skilled full-time domestic workers is far from an acceptable wage. All trade unions have demanded a universal minimum wage of Rs. 15,000 per month, based on today's prices.

Like everything else it does, this government is yet to respond to why is it not possible.We don't need another wishy-washy unimplementable policy. We need a robust legislation that defines who a domestic worker is and lays down the conditions of work. It should provide for a just minimum wage and healthcare and retirement benefits, along with a mechanism for robust implementation and punitive measures for violations.

Anything short of this will only contribute to legitimising the extreme exploitation of the country's 5 million-plus domestic workers.

First published: 18 August 2015, 1:00 IST
Sujata Mody

is the National Secretary, New Trade Union Initiative