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regular-article-logo Sunday, 14 April 2024

Extant slavery

The long, unquantifiable work regimen for which low wages are assigned to live-in domestic workers amounts to wage theft since a large component of their labour is unpaid

Maya John Published 21.02.24, 06:20 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph.

The moment a domestic worker joins full-time employment, he/she becomes invisible to the outside world. On rare occasions, the vulnerability of full-time domestic workers draws fleeting media attention when some of them are rescued from abusive employers. The State’s refusal to regulate the employer-employee relation in the paid domestic work industry ensures a highly-privatised workplace where the employer’s writ runs large. Conflicting official data on the size of this workforce are further proof of the routine invisibilisation of paid domestic workers. However, this workforce is huge and continues to grow, constituting approximately the third-largest female workforce after agriculture and construction. It is thus imperative to address the factors that lead to their overexploitation.

There is no legally-defined workday in full-time paid domestic work. In such work arrangements, there is no start and end time to the work. Even if some designated rest period is part of the work arrangement, employers often disallow domestic workers to leave the household. The constant blurring of rest time and the identifiable workday is rampant.

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The erratic, fluid work regimen of domestic workers constitutes more than the nine-hour workday. These workers then not only work more than any other category of workers but also end up getting less than the minimum wage. The long, unquantifiable work regimen for which low wages are assigned to live-in domestic workers amounts to wage theft since a large component of their labour is unpaid. Such wage theft is pervasive, given that poor, unorganised and, hence, submissive migrant workers usually enter into such work arrangements. Concealed beneath the provision of food and lodging for the live-in domestic worker is the disturbing fact that a portion of the wage theft actually sponsors the food and lodging of the worker. The duress that pushes domestic workers into 24x7 work arrangements would be mitigated if they could access minimum wage, and if the minimum wage rate was increased to accommodate the actual costs of living.

Article 23 of the Constitution identifies the compulsion to work while a significant portion of labour is unpaid, or there is no payment for overtime, as forced labour. It is wide in scope because of the inclusion of a broad spectrum of exploitative work arrangements termed as ‘forced labour’. In this vein, full-time paid domestic work clearly falls within the ambit of forced labour. In important Supreme Court rulings that draw on Article 23, we see an emphasis on the obligation of the State to protect its citizens from forced labour. These rulings, such as PUDR vs Union of India, identify forced labour as arising from the condition where labour is paid less than the minimum wage.

Indian policymakers exhibit a conspicuous unwillingness to forbid 24-hour paid domestic work contracts. The Indian State has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 189 on domestic workers. Nevertheless, the Indian State is still required to act in accordance with Article 23 of the Constitution. The lack of commitment to outlaw this forced labour, which is actually a hidden form of slavery, stems from the larger context of the steady withdrawal of the State from regulation of a constellation of employer-employee relations. This is evident in the falling numbers of labour inspectors and the massive push towards self-certification of employers’ compliance with statutory labour laws.

Given the State’s increasing withdrawal from regulating the majority of work relations and the highly-privatised domain of paid domestic work where regulation of the employer-employee relationship is difficult, the only way to liberate citizens trapped in extant slavery is to draw on constitutional provisions to prohibit full-time live-in paid domestic work and enhance the remuneration for the legal workday.

Maya John is a labour historian and Convenor of the Gharelu Kamgar Union

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