Domestic workers

Domestic workers: unorganized, left with weak bargaining power and forced into indignity

Domestic workers in India have no laws protecting their rights

Editor’s note: FII’s May 2022 #MoodOfTheMonth is Gender in the workplace. We invite submissions on the many layers of this theme throughout the month. If you would like to contribute, please refer to our submission guidelines and email your articles to [email protected]


Many households, especially the wealthier and more urban ones, depend on domestic workers. the International Labor Organization characterizes domestic workers as workers who perform domestic work for pay and wages. These workers perform strenuous tasks, which may include cooking, laundry, sweeping, cleaning, childcare, driving, security, etc. These tasks are often gendered within a household, and the export of these tasks to external sources reflects this gender dynamic.

Domestic work represents one of the main job opportunities for women in India. According to National Bureau of Sample Surveys (2012), India has 39 lakh people employed as domestic servants, of whom at least 26 lakh are women. However, the absence of legislation and the socio-economic dynamics within these spaces have led to a strong informalization of this work.

While domestic work has always been in demand, the increase in the number of domestic workers over the past decade has been amplified by increasing industrialization, shrinking agricultural employment and rapid urbanization. These workers, especially women, have seen a reduction in their traditional sources of income (mainly agriculture) and lack transferable skills to work in other sectors. There is a surplus of female workers without adequate education or skills, who seek better sources of income in the cities and are often absorbed into the informal economy, especially in the expanding service sectors, which include domestic work.

The informal economy captures a significant share of the global market, particularly in emerging economies. South Asian countries are particularly characterized by large-scale informal employment, the highest among emerging economy regions of the world, about two-fifths of the global total.

The majority of domestic workers also belong to oppressed castes and are often employed by members of dominant castes. The notions of purity and pollution influence their treatment at work, and the type of tasks assigned to them. These caste-based dynamics are evident, such as provision of separate utensils, separate or no water facilities, refusal to use furniture or toilets, provision of stale food, etc. All these examples of daily humiliations and indignities of domestic workers are forced to face

Domestic work offers easy employment opportunities for women who might be looking to increase their income or lack sources of income, due to a lack of qualifications and skills as well as discriminatory barriers in other avenues of employment. job. However, its highly informal, deregulated and unorganized nature creates unfavorable conditions for workers, especially women and people from other marginalized social backgrounds.

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The domestic worker often faces poor working conditions and low wages and is subject to exploitation, routine harassment and abuse. With the overwhelming number of women in this category, linked to the isolating nature of the work, no opportunity to unionize or belong to organizations, and dependent on word of mouth, domestic workers, especially women in private homes, are also vulnerable to sexual abuse. , with little recourse.

Private households are not recognized as work establishments subject to labor legislation. The same type of work performed in an establishment such as a school or a factory is considered bound work under labor law, but domestic workers do not receive the same recognition. Domestic work can be highly fragmented, with workers often employed part-time in multiple households, making it difficult to cover existing legislation.

In addition, domestic workers do not have specific working hours and therefore do not strictly observe the daily minimum wage and working hours. However, the total number of hours they worked may be equal to or greater than, for example, the number of hours worked by a full-time factory employee.

Read also : Caste and gender in paid domestic work in India

The majority of domestic workers also belong to oppressed castes and are often employed by members of dominant castes. The notions of purity and pollution influence their treatment at work, and the type of tasks assigned to them. These caste-based dynamics are evident, such as provision of separate utensils, separate or no water facilities, refusal to use furniture or toilets, provision of stale food, etc. All these examples of daily humiliations and indignities of domestic workers are forced to confront.

Domestic work is devalued and this is reflected in the remuneration of this work, in particular due to the strong competition for labour. Additionally, it is also stigmatized, where having to clean another’s house is seen as unclean and looked down upon as often driven by necessity rather than choice. Yet those who despise such labor seek such laborers to work in their homes.

Comprehensive legislation encompassing the varied nature of domestic work is crucial. There is a need for regulation and control to reduce the possibility of exploitation and to allow remedies for workers. Provisions to help unionize and organize domestic workers are needed, to enable greater collective bargaining power, regulate wages, tackle unfair dismissal and improve job security

The unorganized nature of the work, reliance on word of mouth and the bargaining power of the employer make domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation and income insecurity. For example, the personal story of a domestic worker describes a common occurrence in his work. Often when an employer decides to travel or take a vacation, they are not paid for that period of time, yet they are expected to start work immediately upon their return.

This indicates a devaluation of their work linked to the informal nature of the arrangement as well as a rejection of domestic work. Job opportunities are scarce, inequality is high, and competition for labor is abundant, leaving workers with little recourse. In other cases, workers were often accused of theft, particularly among employers who did not want their rights. Domestic workers often have too little bargaining power and are subject to the whims of their employees.

Comprehensive legislation encompassing the varied nature of domestic work is crucial. There is a need for regulation and control to reduce the possibility of exploitation and to allow remedies for workers. Provisions to facilitate the unionization and organization of domestic workers are needed to enable greater collective bargaining power, regulate wages, combat unfair dismissal and improve job security.

Moreover, linking such a legislature to social protection schemes is essential, as underlined during the COVID-19 pandemic, where thousands of workers were forced to survive without income for months.

More importantly, there is a need to recognize domestic work as dignified work, both in the paid and unpaid sphere, and to acknowledge the guilt of those who employ domestic workers. Such exploitative practices should not be seen as the norm, and individual households that employ domestic workers have a strong responsibility to treat them with dignity and uphold their rights.

Read also : Domestic workers and Covid-19: lessons of dignity to be learned


Featured image source: UCA News