NEW DELHI — Domestic workers in India suffer from poor working conditions, low wages and abuse. The national government has yet to pass comprehensive legislation to protect this marginalized group.
As incomes in the country rise and more women are employed full-time, the demand for domestic helpers continues to grow. Currently, there are an estimated 4.2 million domestic workers in India, the majority of whom are women. Many domestic workers are migrants from poor, rural areas. They are often uneducated and illiterate, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Due to a lack of regulations, domestic helpers are often forced to work long hours without any holidays. Many do not have access to health benefits or maternity leave. They have no job security and are widely underpaid, sometimes even unpaid. Additionally, domestic workers often experience discrimination based on their unreputable occupation, ethnicity or caste.
According to the non-profit organization Indika Alliance, thousands of women and children are trafficked and sold into the domestic sector annually. Although outlawed in India, child labor continues due to lacking law enforcement.
Labor rights violations and abuse cases are reported regularly, ranging from humiliation over sexual assault, to physical violence and deprivation of freedom. In 2012, over 3,500 domestic workers accused their employers of violence in the country.
Since domestic helpers’ workplaces are so scattered and inaccessible, organizing a unified workforce with a strong voice remains challenging. It also complicates the enforcement of legislation.
Several state governments have passed laws to protect domestic workers. Seven of the 29 Indian states have introduced minimum wages for domestic workers and several states have worked to provide the employees with access to social security benefits. The southern state Karnataka has recently launched a program that aims to empower domestic workers by teaching them new skills to broaden their employment opportunities and enable them to demand better salaries and benefits.
Advocates are continuing to call attention to the issue. The National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWM) lobbies for protective legislation and raises public awareness on the workers’ hardships. The Movement is currently engaging 200,000 domestic workers in 17 Indian states. In 2016, the NDWM drafted a bill granting minimum wage, social security benefits and mandatory time off to domestic workers. This bill is currently pending in Parliament.
The NDWM is not the only organization fighting for the rights of domestic workers. The non-profit Stree Jagruti Samiti has fought for the rights of domestic workers as well as having worked for women for 30 years. They have, for instance, opened a worker facilitation center in Karnataka in 2013, which registers domestic workers, educates them about the benefits they are entitled to and helps them to access them. Another example, the SEWA Delhi, also raises workers’ awareness of their rights and links them to government social security programs.
The situation has also attracted international attention. The New York Times and The Guardian have reported on this issue. Also, the International Labor Organization (ILO) published a report on domestic work in India in 2015 that calls upon the Indian government to undertake “[s]erious efforts […] to plug legal and regulatory loopholes and to punish fraudulent and corrupt practices.”
International attention and national and local campaigns heighten the pressure on the Indian government to take decisive action to protect the country’s domestic workers. This pressure might accelerate the passage of federal legislation. However, Kakuli Deb of the rights group Parichiti told Outlook India that “it is deep-rooted in our psyche to somehow consider [domestic helpers]less than human.” Improving the lives of domestic workers in India will require not only strong legislation, but also profound changes in society’s attitudes.
– Lena Riebl