Saturday, 6 June 2020

Make ‘Em Secure

Updated: December 26, 2009 6:02 pm

Domestic placement agencies are mushrooming everywhere. A substantial number of domestic workers are trafficked from poor states like West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. But there is no national legislation to protect the rights and ensure the welfare of this huge army of domestic workers, writes Shreya Bhattacharya

Roma is just 17 but she has been working as a full-time domestic worker for the past one year in a house in Delhi. An agent from her village in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, brought her to a domestic service placement agency in Delhi promising her a good income. She is already into her third household in a year’s time but she still does not know what her monthly salary is and is yet to see it. Her salary is deposited by the employer at the agency and will be given to her once her contract is over.

Lakshmi is about 30 years old and has been working as a part-time domestic worker in Delhi for almost 12 years now. She migrated with her family to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh many years ago. She goes to work in the morning as well as in the evening in four or five houses earning Rs 2,000 a month.

These Worker have no legal protection in terms of her employment and nor for working conditions. Both are completely at the mercy of their employers, and have no job security. They are part of an estimated population of more than 100,000 domestic workers working in the Delhi alone, a figure which is expected to rise six-fold in the next five years, according to the International Labour Organisation


Domestic workers are part of the growing informal sector that has no fixed hours of work or fixed wages. There is no security of tenure as a worker may come back from her holiday only to find that someone else has taken her place. She often does not get a weekly off or any paid holiday. The threat of sexual harassment is an ever-present one.

To cater to the growing demand for domestic workers, a number of domestic service placement agencies have sprung up in cities across the country with a huge concentration in the National Capital Region (NCR). But what might have been expected to streamline and regulate a sector where hitherto the employer called all the shots has not resulted in any improvement. A total absence of regulation under the labour laws has meant that the often exploitative nature of domestic work continues unabated.

Growing consumerism, the need to earn by both partners, and the trend towards nuclear families have increased the demand for domestic workers across many cosmopolitan cities. There are more than 2,400 domestic placement agencies operating in Delhi, out of which only 24 are registered with the Department of Labour (Source: RTI filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan).

A substantial number of domestic workers, mainly young girls and women, are trafficked to cities from states like West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. The source districts are some of the poorest in the country, inhabited mainly by Scheduled Tribes. Many of these girls and women are lured by agents in the villages with incentives of a good pay and life.

Sarala Sardar, a 30-year-old woman from West Bengal, took up an agent’s offer to work in Delhi. He took her to Vaishno Domestic Service Placement in Lado Sarai, New Delhi, which placed her with a household. However, when she fell ill, the family sent her back to the agency. She was forcibly confined without food by the agency’s owner. When she demanded her wages, she was brutally beaten and threatened to kill her by agency’s owner. She finally escaped, but without any of the money she had earned.

The agents get young girls, boys and women to placement agencies, where they are kept in over-crowded and unhygienic conditions until they can be placed. They are given little to eat and not given soap and other facilities to keep clean. Once the agency procures her work, she is sent off but the amount spent on her upkeep while she was with the agency is deducted from her wages!

In many cases young girls or women do not get paid directly, the wages are sent to the agency which often refuses to pay up even when they go to their home. When some try to raise their voice against the injustice, they are threatened with dire consequences. The UN Human Rights Commission has declared domestic workers a form of contemporary slavery. (UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery 1990)

There are terms and conditions (an informal contract) between the agency and the client (i.e. the person in whose home the domestic worker works), but none between the agency and the worker. The employer pays a hefty amount as commission (which is non-refundable) and an advance of a month’s salary to the agency on hiring the domestic worker. After that, the employer makes payments in cash or by cheque to the agency and may or may not be issued receipts by the agency. This contract clearly mentions that the salary has to be paid to the agency office and not to the domestic worker, thus flouting labour laws blatantly.

Existing regulations

It is important for us to have an overview of the existing regulations and legal provision for domestic workers in our country to strategise and move forward.

The ILO is coming up with a convention, “Decent Work for Domestic Workers”, to set labour standards for domestic/household workers at the International Labour Conference in 2010.

standards for domestic/household workers at the International Labour Conference in 2010.

Says Geeta Menon of the Karnataka Domestic Workers Rights Union, “The convention will help put the issues of domestic workers on the international agenda. But we must understand the inherent limitations of the ILO and not expect it to be a complete solution. This could be thought of as a strategy. We have seen in other conventions, how unless the government is convinced and ratifies the convention, nothing really takes place. A change is necessary in public opinion and the commitment to make decent work a reality.”

The Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, includes domestic workers. The Act has provisions for identity cards, registration facilities and other social security benefits, but there is no mention about regulation of work conditions or working hours.

The National Commission for Women along with a sub-committee of trade unions and NGOs working with domestic workers has undertaken to formulate a legislation for domestic workers.

The government of Maharashtra has passed the Maharashtra Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Act, 2008 in December 2008, for the welfare of domestic workers but the financial provisions for it have yet to be passed.

All the four southern states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh—have issued notifications including domestic workers in the Minimum Wages Act. Tamil Nadu also has a Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board which was constituted on January 22, 2007. The government of Kerala has included domestic workers as members of the Kerala Artisan and Skilled Workers’ Welfare Fund, thereby allowing domestic workers to avail of social security schemes.

Preliminary notification for minimum wages for domestic workers has been passed in the state of Rajasthan in 2007 and Bihar in 2006.

Delhi has one of the largest population of domestic workers, a large number of whom have been trafficked for domestic work. When cries for help have come from domestic workers, civil society organisations have been the rescuers, not the government. A 2005 circular issued by the Delhi DCP instructed all officers to keep an eye on placement agencies in their areas, but the police claim that this circular is not legally enforceable so they cannot really do anything.

In July 2007, Shramajivee Mahila Samity (SMS) and the Human Rights Law Network filed a petition in the Delhi High Court demanding police action against domestic placement agencies in Delhi. They submitted complaints from 159 domestic workers who had been cheated and abused by five agencies in the city.

During the court hearings, corrupt links between officials and agency owners became apparent. The court demanded that the state government collaborate with civil society to frame guidelines for regulating the agencies. But the state’s counsel, and especially the Department of Labour, has done nothing till now.

At present, the Delhi government is more interested in carrying out a joint programme with the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the ILO to develop the skills of domestic workers. They are trained in maintaining personal hygiene, developing intra-personal communication skills, understanding components of an urban meal, managing urban kitchens, handling domestic pets, handling kitchen gardens, electricity and electrical appliances and providing first-aid. closed down -in Old town area of Bhubaneswar before moving out of the state to Darjeeling in West Bengal. He worked there for over a decade and returned home. Having learnt the skill of stitching, Barik started loving it. He smiles, “Today I am obsessed with it.”

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