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Forget us not: Maids

New Delhi, Dec. 18: The cabinet has struck a blow for the malnourished but another neglected section without which few houses in India can run is seeking the attention of policymakers.

Domestic workers, India’s exploited and faceless army largely ignored by organised labour, are at the centre of a campaign being launched in India as part of a global movement christened “12x12”.

The initiative, now taken up by workers’ unions, will press governments to ratify an International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention that seeks decent work conditions and minimum wages for domestic workers. India supported the ILO convention at the June conference in Geneva.

“The convention will give recognition to the rights we have long yearned for,” said Chinmayee Sanal, a domestic worker from Odisha and a member of the Nirmala Niketan union here. “Our work hours will be fixed and we will get a healthy, safe workplace with privacy for women.”

The move by the unions comes about a month after a labour ministry task force on domestic workers published a report that recommended safeguards for social security, measures for grievance redress and a helpline to report sexual violence.

“The report stresses regulation and monitoring of placement agencies, though it is silent on registration of employers,” said Nalini Nayak, general secretary of the Kerala unit of the Self-Employed women’s Association (SEWA). “It seeks to register domestic helps who go abroad for work.”

India, along with the Philippines, is one of the biggest suppliers of domestic helps across the globe.

“We want a written contract in our native language, especially if we go to work abroad," Chinmayee added, reflecting the awareness that has caught on after years of being taken for granted.

Bibiyani Minj, a colleague of Chinmayee, said wages were often handed over to the placement agency. “We are forced to accept any wage we are given. We only get leftover food to eat and have to sleep on the floor even during winter. They even call us by names like Baby and not our real names. We lose our identity.”

The task force has published the draft national policy online for feedback from the public. Nayak said a positive aspect of the draft was that it set a timeline 13 months for implementing the reforms. “When the labour ministry has been able to work so fast on the policy, we want the government to work to amend the laws at the same pace,” Nayak said.

R.A. Mittal, secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which represents 175 million workers in 151 countries said there were around one crore domestic workers in India. “It was only under our pressure did India support the convention and we will ensure the government takes the required steps to ratify it.”

The ITUC is campaigning in the 183 ILO member states, urging them to be among the first 12 to endorse the convention by 2012, which explains the campaign’s name, 12x12.

Anasuya, a member of the Congress-backed Intuc, another ITUC affiliate, promised to lobby Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to see the ratification through.

For the convention to come into force, two countries need to approve it initially. In India, the government needs to ratify the convention by amending labour laws to include domestic workers.

Among those who represented India at the Geneva meet were P.C. Chaturvedi, secretary, ministry of labour and employment; A. Gopinathan, permanent representative at the UN mission; Ravi Wig, chairperson, Council of Indian Employers, and Baijnath Rai, general secretary, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.

SEWA’s Nayak said eight states (Bengal is not among them) had already included domestic workers under the minimum wage regulations on an hourly basis. The average hourly minimum wage for unorganised domestic helps in these states is Rs 10. Workers in Kerala, one of the eight states, get a daily wage between Rs 135 and Rs 150.

Nayak, however, acknowledged the problems ahead. “Labour departments in states find it difficult to understand our problem,” she said. “Bringing us under the labour laws will turn the home which is a private place for the labour department into a workplace.”


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