In India, domestic work has traditionally been positioned at the bottom of the occupational structure with low social status and institutional ignorance. The lack of political and legal recognition has left domestic workers structurally and procedurally vulnerable to the conditions of poverty and at the mercy of their employers, exposing them to potential harassment, discrimination, and exploitation.
With the stifling of economic activity brought on by the prolonged nationwide lockdown, Indian domestic workers are now being confronted with increased hardships and financial challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has made evident the precarious nature of their marginalization and the urgent need to address the situation. Therefore, as social distancing measures are likely to continue, the Indian government should consider bringing in new legislation to protect the rights of these domestic workers.
Anecdotal evidence reveals that despite strict restrictions on movement and the fear of contracting the virus, many domestic workers are being compelled to go to work as they struggle to procure basic necessities like food, shelter and medications amidst the crude circumstances of the lockdown. They are in fact being persuaded by their employers to continue working and are being threatened of possible replacement if they do not.
Unable to travel, many domestic workers have been relieved of their jobs without adequate payment and there are others who have received pay-cuts for the subsequent months. Considering that these workers have limited to no savings or financial backing, the possibility of their lives being severely affected by the domino effect of rising unemployment and a lack of income stands extremely high.
Moreover, since domestic work falls under the category of unregistered and unregulated work, these workers — in most instances — have been unable to access government relief packages that are being provided to deal with the current crisis. This essentially means that a majority of domestic workers are not even beneficiaries of the state government’s food grain allotment program, leaving them with limited access to food-related benefits.
Adding to the problems of income loss and lack of social security is the prospect of domestic workers having to face harassment and eviction from their rented accommodations. This could either be due to their inability to pay rent or due to the social stigma attached with these workers that labels them as potential carriers of the virus.
In addition, given the private nature of domestic work, female workers have often been subjected to sexual violence or physical abuse. In 2014, the Indian government presented records that demonstrated a steady increase in the number of sexual violence cases involving female domestic workers across the country. Extrapolating from this, it would not be a stretch to say that the present lockdown — which confines citizens into their homes and sometimes workers with their employers — will only aggravate instances of abuse against female workers.
Despite these vulnerabilities, domestic workers have no safety net or grievance redressal mechanism to fall back on. It is the people most in need of legal protection who are left without it.
A Need for Concrete Steps
Although there has been a lot of discussion about introducing a stronger rights-based regime for domestic workers in India, nothing concrete has come of it. At present, there are only two policies concerning domestic workers, the Unorganised Workers Act 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013. But both of these pieces of legislation are insufficient.
While the former fails to guarantee basic rights to domestic workers and is largely ineffective in its enforcement, the latter fails to address the peculiarities of the domestic work profession, and is thus inadequate in trying to address the grievances of domestic workers. As a result, domestic workers continue to be deprived of their rights.
In 2011, the Ministry of Labor and Employment released the first draft of the “National Policy for Domestic Workers.” However, it could never find its way forward in the Parliamentary Standing Committee and ultimately had to be retracted.
The same year, India signed the “Domestic Workers Convention C-189” of the International Labor Organization, which specified that domestic workers would enjoy certain basic rights, such as fair wages, regulated working hours, equal bargaining power, and so on. Yet, the Indian government never ratified the convention, stating that its national laws and practices are not in conformity with the provisions of the convention.
Subsequently, in June 2019, another effort was made by the government to draft a national policy for domestic workers which would ensure the payment of minimum wages, social security and safe working conditions. But, it never became full-fledged legislation and there has been no word from the center regarding the issue since.
Evidently, despite multiple efforts there has been constant inaction in terms of upholding the welfare of domestic workers. Nonetheless, with the lockdown affecting their sources of income generation and employment, there is a need to bring in a new legislative framework that protects the rights of domestic workers.
The new legislation should accord full recognition to the importance and centrality of domestic and care work to the national economy, include caps on working hours, bonuses for overtime work, the prohibition of unfair dismissal as well as abrupt pay cuts and access to redressal mechanisms.
The nationwide lockdown has aggravated the plight of domestic workers in addition to the multiple vulnerabilities that already existed in the sector. And, had there been a detailed legal framework tailored specifically to protect the interests of domestic workers, their hardships in the present lockdown would have been a lot easier to manage. Regardless of the time lost, the pandemic should serve as a reminder for the Indian government to consider the matter with utmost urgency.
Akanksha Khullar is a researcher at the Center for Internal and Regional Security at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The author tweets at @akankshakhullar.