New Delhi: As domestic workers around the world have suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s astonishing lack of comprehensive legal or policy arrangements to protect their well-being has resulted in a terrible downward spiral for the men and women in this industry. over the past year, according to a report found.
The report published by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) notes that while the pandemic has demonstrated how integrated domestic care and assistance is, this has not translated into an improvement in the situation of domestic workers.
But more importantly, governments also don’t seem keen on solving this problem. Only six of the 54 Commonwealth countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention (C189) – 10 years after it was adopted to ensure decent conditions for domestic workers. India is not one of the six.
The report examines the situation of domestic workers in five Commonwealth countries which have not yet ratified C189 but are considering it in one way or another or are under pressure to consider it. With India, he studies the United Kingdom, Uganda, Papua New Guinea and Dominica. It also examines the situation of South Africa, which has ratified C189, and Jamaica, which is on the verge of doing so.
In India, it is difficult to assess the extent of domestic worker problems early on – when it comes to determining how many people are engaged in domestic work, for example. While, according to official statistics, there are 4.75 million domestic workers in India, including three million women, the International Labor Organization and others are convinced that the actual number is much higher, ranging from 20 to 80 million.
This is also a problem for countries like Dominica and Papua New Guinea, the report acknowledges, where lack of data or uncertainty in numbers is a problem while trying to assess the extent of challenges facing communities. domestic workers.
States left to their own devices
The main reason identified by the report as contributing to the ineffectiveness of India’s “piecemeal approach” to domestic work is that all relevant actions are defederalised, with no comprehensive and binding rules to govern working conditions for workers. domestic workers. Allowing individual states to formulate their own protections and maintain their own databases – especially in an industry experiencing migration and state-to-state movements – guarantees gaps that are difficult to fill.
Further, the report notes that state protections “are neither consistent nor uniformly implemented, and in some cases non-existent”.
He cites the fact that of all the states and UTs in India, only 13 have enacted minimum wage laws for domestic workers.
When the Union government passed laws, it failed to ensure that they were implemented uniformly in all states.
The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act 2008, for example, calls on all states to establish social assistance boards to ensure that domestic workers receive benefits. But some states still haven’t.
Such discrepancies and differing labor laws between states make workers vulnerable to the pitfalls resulting from lack of knowledge of these laws, which also directly affects their ability to access benefits.
Although 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 four hours’ notice last year, leaving lakhs to return home without any framework to ensure that they have reached their intended destinations.
Migrant domestic workers, especially women, are already under financial pressure and find themselves unable to tackle abusive recruitment practices, unfair “placement fees”, unfair employment terms and sexual harassment.
Especially during the pandemic, domestic workers were seen as the prime candidates who had fallen through the cracks, facing huge financial losses and having virtually no protection to fall back on, as this analysis by Shiney suggests. Chakraborty.
When it comes to the harm done to them, often by employers, domestic workers have no other support than turning to the police, which, thanks to the power inequalities at play , is often dissuasive. Thus, according to the report, the 2013 law on sexual harassment of women in the workplace (prevention, prohibition and redress) needs to be revised in order to improve complaint mechanisms for domestic workers.
Child domestic workers are most at risk – the report cites a 2006 study of 500 child domestic workers in West Bengal which found that 68% had experienced physical violence.
The Child Labor Law Amendment Act 2016 only protects children between the ages of 14 and 18 against “hazardous work” and not against domestic work and the conditions that can result from it.
The role of the Union government
The report calls for bold laws to eradicate the worst forms of child labor and adds that this would be in line with what India, as a signatory of target 8.7 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, 1999, claimed to target.
Noting that a draft policy on domestic workers has been awaiting Cabinet approval since 2017, the report notes that it is time to make these policies legally binding instead of serving as a guideline, which even this draft policy is. .
The report acknowledges the unveiling of the e-Shram portal which aims to register 38 crores of non-union workers in the country and the formulation of labor codes as measures taken by the Union government to ensure guarantees for non-union workers, including including domestic workers.
But he notes that in labor codes, “provisions relating specifically to domestic workers have been ignored, once again emphasizing their invisibility to federal policy makers.”
However, despite the presentation of the much debated labor codes as “major reforms”, as Akriti Bhatia notes on the Wire, the Union government seems reluctant to implement them, with reports claiming that the Union government cannot notify the rules until after the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections next year.
E-Shram, which has registered 7.7 million people so far, has yet to demonstrate the benefits of such a database, the report notes. In his analysis of the Wire, Harshita Sinha highlighted how the registration process itself presents barriers for workers who have difficulty accessing the internet, required technology and their own Aadhaar information.
These measures do little to combat the fact that the pandemic has plunged workers into a financial pit from which they are far from recovering.
Between April 2020 and summer 2021, only 42% of domestic workers in Delhi were able to return to work, according to a study cited in the report, pointing to the uncertainty into which others were being pushed.
The report also cites how a study of informal workers in Ahmedabad found that 82% of domestic workers received food subsidies, while only 29% received cash subsidies in that year, the number of cash subsidies being so long in large part because many did not even have a bank account. and had no idea at all that such benefits were available.
The report further recognizes that much of the work to ensure that domestic workers get benefits is done by unions across the country and calls on civil society to encourage unionization and collective action among domestic workers, including references to the Association of Independent Women (SEWA) and / or the National Movement of Domestic Workers (NDWM) as appropriate.
All of this contributes to the report’s call for India to ratify C189, as a step towards streamlining national protections for domestic workers.