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New Delhi: While domestic workers across the world have suffered in the COVID-19 pandemic, the astounding lack of overarching legal or policy provisions in India to safeguard their wellbeing has meant a dire downward spiral for men and women in this sector in the last year, a report has found.
The report published by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) notes that while the pandemic has demonstrated how integral domestic care and assistance is, this has not translated into an alleviation of the situation of domestic workers.
But more importantly, governments do not appear keen to resolve this either. Only six out of 54 Commonwealth countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention (C189) – 10 years after it was brought to ensure decent conditions for domestic workers. India is not one of the six.
The report thus looks at the situations of domestic workers in five Commonwealth nations that are yet to ratify the C189 but are in some way considering it or are under pressure to consider it. Along with India, it studies the United Kingdom, Uganda, Papua New Guinea and Dominica. It also looks at the situation of South Africa, which has ratified the C189, and Jamaica, which is close to doing this.
In India, challenges in gauging the depth of domestic workers’ problems arise at the very start – when it comes to determining how many people are engaged in domestic work, for instance. While according to official statistics, there are 4.75 million domestic workers in India, three million of whom are women, the International Labour Organisation, along with others are firm that the real number is much more, ranging from a wide 20 to 80 million.
This is a problem also for countries like Dominica and Papua New Guinea, the report recognises, where lack of data or uncertainty in numbers acts as a problem while attempting to gauge the extent of domestic workers’ challenges.
States left on their own
The main reason that the report identifies as contributing to the ineffectiveness of India’s “piecemeal approach” towards domestic work is that all relevant action is de-federalised, with no overarching and binding rules to govern the working conditions of domestic labourers. Leaving individual states to formulate their own protections and maintain their own databases – especially in a sector that sees migration and movement from state to state – ensures loopholes that are difficult to bridge.
In addition, the report notes that state protections “are neither consistent nor uniformly implemented, and in some cases, non-existent.”
It cites the fact that of all the states and UTs in India, only 13 have enacted laws guaranteeing minimum wages for domestic workers.
Where the Union government has laid down laws, it has not ensured that they have been implemented uniformly across states.
The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, for instance, asks all states to set up welfare boards to ensure domestic workers get benefits. But some states still haven’t.
Such discrepancies and differing labour laws among states makes labourers vulnerable to the pitfalls arising from lack of awareness of such laws, which also directly affects their ability to access benefits.
While the report does not mention it, but the fact that migrant workers, domestic or otherwise, are particularly vulnerable to crises was visible when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced with a four-hour notice last year, leaving lakhs to walk home without any framework to ensure they reached their intended destinations.
Migrant domestic workers, especially women, are already under financial pressure and find themselves unable to address exploitative recruitment practices, unfair ‘placement fees’, unfair clauses in employment, and sexual harassment.
Especially during the pandemic, women domestic workers were seen as primary candidates who had fallen through the cracks, facing huge financial losses and having virtually no protection to fall back upon, as this analysis by Shiney Chakraborty suggests.
When it comes to harm done to them, often by employers, women domestic workers have no support other than to approach police, which, thanks to power inequality equations at play is often a deterrent. Thus, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, the report says, must be reviewed to improve complaint mechanisms for domestic workers.
At the greatest risk are child domestic workers – the report cites a 2006 study of 500 child domestic workers in West Bengal that found 68% had faced physical abuse.
The Child Labour Amendment Act, 2016 only protects children between 14 and 18 years from “hazardous work” and not domestic work and the conditions that may arise out of it.
Union government’s role
The report calls for bold laws to eradicate the worst forms of child labour and adds that it would be in line with what India, as a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7 and the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, has claimed to aim for.
Noting that a Draft Policy on Domestic Workers is awaiting Cabinet approval since 2017, the report notes that it is the need of the hour to make such policies legally binding instead of acting as a guideline, which even this Draft Policy is.
The report recognises the unveiling of the e-Shram portal which aims to register 38 crore unorganised workers in the country and the formulation of the Labour Codes as steps taken by the Union government towards ensuring safeguards for unorganised, including domestic, labourers.
But it notes that in the Labour Codes, “provisions relating specifically to domestic workers were overlooked, once again highlighting their invisibility among federal policy makers.”
However, despite pitching the much debated labour codes as “big reforms”, as Akriti Bhatia notes on The Wire, the Union government seems wary of implementing them, with reports claiming that Union government may not notify the rules until after the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next year.
E-Shram, which has seen 7.7 crore people register on it so far, is yet to demonstrate the benefits of such a database, the report notes. In her analysis on The Wire, Harshita Sinha has highlighted how the registration process itself offers hurdles for workers struggling to access internet, requisite technology and their own Aadhaar details.
These measures do little to tackle the fact that the pandemic has pushed workers in a financial abyss that they are far from recovering from.
In the time between April 2020 and the summer of 2021, only 42% of domestic workers in Delhi alone were able to resume work, according to a study cited in the report, pointing to the uncertainty to which the rest were thrust.
The report also cites how a study of informal workers in Ahmedabad found that 82% of domestic workers received food grants, while only 29% received cash grants during this year, with the cash grant number so long largely because many did not even have bank accounts and were not aware that such benefits were available at all.
The report further recognises that a huge chunk of the work to ensure domestic workers get benefits are done by unions across the country and calls for civil society to encourage unionisation and collective action among domestic workers, including referrals to the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and/or the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) as appropriate.
All of this contributes to the report’s call to India to ratify the C189, as a step towards streamlining national protections for domestic workers.