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Hope for the have-nots

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By You'll have to give your domestic worker a minimum wage, fixed working hours, paid annual and sick leave and maternity leave. Shabina Akhtar reviews the Draft National Policy for Domestic Workers
  • Published 23.05.12

In February this year a 13-year-old domestic worker was kept locked up by her employers while they holidayed in Thailand. In yet another atrocity against a domestic help, a teenager from Jharkhand, also 13 years old, was branded with a hot iron by her employer.

Shocking as these cases are, they are by no means uncommon. Indeed, even if they are not physically abused, most domestic workers get a raw deal — with poor working conditions, sub par wages, little or no benefits and no access to human rights.

It is to address these problems that the Draft National Policy for Domestic Workers was framed recently. “The policy aims to promote domestic workers’ human rights and fundamental principles and rights at work by bringing them in the ambit of labour legislation, and relevant labour policies and schemes that are available to other workers in India,” the policy states.

Essentially, the policy proposes to bring domestic workers under eight existing labour laws — The Minimum Wages Act, Trade Union Act, Payment of Wages Act, Workmen’s Compensation Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Contract Labour Act, Equal Remuneration Act and The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act.

If the policy gets the Cabinet’s approval and is implemented, domestic workers will be classified as part-time, full-time and live-in, based on the number of hours they spend at the employer’s house. They would also be required to register with the ministry of labour. What’s more, they would be able to form or join trade unions as well.

Needless to say, most social activists and legal experts have welcomed the draft policy and the measures it suggests for the uplift of domestic workers. “It’s a very good policy with the good intention of providing social security to the underprivileged. The move is in sync with the Constitution of India and its directive principles of state policy,” says Sardar Amjad Ali, an advocate at Calcutta High Court.

However, there are those who point out that the need of the hour was a law rather than a policy. “I was part of the team that helped the task force in framing the policy,” says Chetan Chandran, state co-ordinator of the National Domestic Workers Movement, Jharkhand chapter. “We were demanding a national law and not a policy, as the latter is not legally binding.”

Chandran feels that in the long run, this policy isn’t going to guarantee social security to domestic workers. “That will be possible only if the eight mentioned laws are amended to make provisions for them. However, with the National Advisory Council pushing for the amendment, things might get better,” he adds.

The policy also talks about entitling domestic workers to a minimum wage, fixed working hours, paid annual and sick leave, and maternity leave. It stipulates that employers would have to pay for their health, maternity, death and disability benefits (including, but not limited to life insurance, accident insurance and compensation in case of accidents) and old age benefits (including, but not limited to gratuity and pension) as well.

Most employers of domestic workers are, however, taken aback by the fact that the draft policy puts the onus of providing all these benefits on them. “I don’t know how the pension and insurance provision will work out. If this is actually implemented, I might even consider doing away with a maid. I will not be able to afford one,” says Sunil Mehra (name changed on request), a media professional.

Indeed, some legal experts also feel that the policy is too ambitious in its aim and that it would never get implemented as things stand in our society. “It’s the responsibility of the government to make adequate arrangements for these workers. The burden of providing these benefits should not be on the individual employer alone. After all, a householder cannot be equated with a large state or a private employer,” says Ali.

Social activists, on the other hand, see no reason why the policy cannot or should not be brought to bear on employers of domestic workers “Such laws exist in several other countries. Hence people shouldn’t object to doing their bit,” says Nikhil Dey, member, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

Adds Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan, assistant professor, National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Calcutta, “Domestic workers are one of the most vulnerable classes of people. Most of their exploitation goes unreported. This policy will help to put a check on those who are trapped in exploitative situations.”

The policy also suggests that every domestic worker be registered with the labour ministry. “State offices of the ministry of labour and their representative offices in districts should be doing the registration, till the Social Security Boards, which are to be established under the Unorganised Sector Workers Act, 2008 are set up in each state,” states the draft policy.

However, this is an impractical proposal. With around 20 million domestic workers in India, the task of getting each one of them registered would be quite difficult, says Chandran.

Others point out that the policy fails in other key areas as well. Says Saurabh Bhattacharjee, assistant professor for labour law and law on poverty, NUJS, “The steps for registration of workers need to be laid down in greater detail. Besides, it is silent on how the proposals would be enforced. The Minimum Wages Act has been implemented in states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, but it hasn’t made much difference.”

Bhattacharjee also feels that the proposal to make employers dole out pension and insurance benefits to their domestic help needs to be thought out much more thoroughly. “The policy has to state clearly how an individual employer would take care of such things.” He also adds that since no punitive measures have been set out for those violating the policy, it’s unlikely that people would take it seriously.

Now it remains to be seen if the draft policy is passed at all, and if so, to what extent it ameliorates the lives of domestic workers in India.

Bill of rights

  • Guaranteed minimum wage. May vary from state to state
  • Women domestic helps to get 12 weeks of maternity leave
  • They can form trade unions or join one
  • Get annual paid and sick leave
  • Compensation for overtime, social security coverage, protection against abuse and violence
  • Safe and healthy working condition
  • Protection against sexual harassment at place of work
  • Work with dignity and respect
  • Access schemes and benefits available to other categories of workers