Millions of women in India are engaged in the care economy, as both paid and unpaid workers. Most are part of the informal economy, eking out a living at below minimum wage – with little or no social security. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and unions worldwide are increasingly recognising women’s care work and the contribution it makes to global economies.
In India too, there is a growing discussion around the care work predominantly done by informal women workers. This article highlights some of the obstacles and approaches to providing these domestic workers with social security, informed by experiences in the field.
Shanti is a domestic worker from Jharkhand. She arrived in Delhi 25 years ago, and through regular employment was able to buy a home in the city and educate her nieces and nephews. In January of this year, she suffered a rare and life-threatening condition – Stephen Johnson Syndrome – and, with great difficulty, her employer had her admitted into a series of hospitals. Shanti slowly recovered after receiving quality care. All her expenses were paid by her long-time employer. She had no insurance. As an Adivasi from Jharkhand, she probably is on the eligibility list for Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), but was not aware of this.
Hamida is a care worker who takes care of elderly people recovering from surgery. Originally from Bihar, she came to Delhi for medical care at AIIMS for her husband, who eventually died of kidney disease. To pay off his debts, Hamida stayed on in Delhi to work for a private agency that provides medical attendants. She leaves her 7-year-old son in the care of neighbours every morning as she has no access to childcare. Her co-worker Rani locks her young daughters in her one-room house before doing night duty for elderly patients as she does not have childcare either.
Shanti, Rani and Hamida are among the lakhs of domestic and care workers in our country. Given the huge demand for this kind of work, they have no issues finding employment. But they do not enjoy basic work security: they are never sure when their work will be terminated, and most do not have access to basic benefits. Those who have heard of some of the schemes meant for them do not have the information and support to obtain the services that are their due.
Several groups are working to change this. Unions like the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have been organising domestic workers in different states across the country. In addition, there is a National Platform for Domestic Workers, convened by Nalini Nayak, veteran trade unionist who was one of the leaders of the fishers’ struggles in Kerala and other parts of coastal India.
After the historic ILO Convention on Domestic Work was passed in 2011, they and many others worked with the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE) in a task force on domestic workers. However, the policy has not yet been finalised, and now domestic workers across India are demanding a law for better working conditions, including social security.
Obtaining even the minimum services and entitlements gives workers hope and boosts their efforts to rally around tougher issues like minimum wages or laws that regulate their employment.
There are several points to consider for this to successfully work. The first issue, in organising social security for domestic workers, is that many of them are migrants. Their ration cards, voter cards and Aadhar cards are issued in their home states, but they require services wherever they migrate to for work.
These schemes are portable in theory, but in practice, migrant domestic workers and care workers do not get their benefits for a variety of reasons, the major one being a lack of documentation. While there is a need to prevent fraud and duplicate documents, with the tremendous strides made in IT so far, a solution should be at hand.
Meanwhile, migrant domestic workers have to deal with suspicious officials and rigid mindsets as well, which keeps them from accessing even minimum social security.
Another point is the dissemination of information. This can be organised in different ways, but must be decentralised and made available as close to where workers live and work as possible. Our experience has shown that domestic workers need to be organised into their own unions and cooperatives.
Without this, they are unlikely to find out what benefits are available to them and how to access them. Representative organisations, like unions, that can present their concerns to the Labour Ministry and others need to be created at the state and central levels.
Next, domestic workers need services like child care, and SEWA’s experience has been that these are best run by the women workers themselves. Not only are they more committed and eager to serve their own communities, but they also know what works best for working parents and their young children.
When organising tobacco workers in Kheda district – one of the biggest tobacco growing areas in India – where workers in the factories were not being paid minimum wage, SEWA ran full-day crèches for the young children of the members.
Once their children were taken care of, women’s trust in their own union deepened, and they found the courage to confront the tobacco factory owners for their rights. In fact, these mothers took the lead and sat on a ‘dharna’ till their issues were resolved – a historic first for this district with politically powerful landlords and factory owners.
SEWA also ran Shakti Kendras or workers’ facilitation centres where women obtain information about their rights, the services offered by the government, and are assisted with obtaining the documentation required as ‘proof’ for any benefits. Over the years, women’s access to the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Maa Amrutam Yojana, and now Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), has increased significantly through these decentralised women-run Shakti Kendras.
Over almost 50 years of organising informal women workers at SEWA, we have learned that providing social security is one of the most effective ways to organise workers, make them visible and provide them with an identity. Systems, services and their timings need to be tailored to the schedules of domestic and care workers, with active outreach, preferably by their own unions and cooperatives, and by workers’ welfare boards.
These women work night and day, usually at the cost of their own families, to take care of us. It is time we took care of them.
Mirai Chatterjee is the director of SEWA Social Security