India’s domestic workers need better legislation to protect their rights through the pandemic

Many households in bustling Indian cities rely on domestic workers. These workers perform arduous tasks, yet they suffer from low wages, unregulated working conditions, and lack of social security.

In the months since its onset in India the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of many sections of India’s working population, including domestic workers. Like others, they need basic forms of protection at work through guaranteed payment of wages to ensure economic stability and social security measures to face any eventuality. The situation domestic workers are faced with currently, clearly highlights the huge anomalies that exists in their employment conditions, bereft of any basic income support or social protection mandated by law.

Domestic workers in India are not formally employed and are therefore not covered by labour laws. In these times they are at the mercy of their employer’s willingness to either continue employing them or financially supporting them. Further, with few other skills, domestic workers face the heat in a shrinking labour market. For many domestic workers, who are often migrants, heading back to their native place is the only option they are left with. The absence of any credible social security makes their situation quite precarious and could force them back into the clutches of poverty. 


A story of struggle and failed promises

Women make up 90 per cent of domestic workers, and many of them are migrants who have relocated along with their spouse and family and are looking to augment the family income. In normal times, domestic work offers easy employment opportunities to women. Estimates of the total number of domestic workers in India range from the official figure of 5 million to unofficial estimates of 50 million.

Domestic workers are either hired directly, through word of mouth or placement agencies. When employment is secured through placement agencies, domestic workers are subjected to exorbitant commissions. Moreover, instances of domestic workers being physically and sexually abused have been on the rise. As per a 2018 survey, 29 per cent of domestic workers surveyed admitted to having faced sexual harassment at workplace. Further, it revealed that 19 per cent of the women who faced this situation chose to ignore the incident, 15 per cent shared with friends and only a mere 2 per cent left the work. The fear of losing work and ensuing social stigmatization deters domestic workers from reporting such atrocities and allows such exploitation to continue.  

While the number of domestic workers is expected to increase to 10.88 million by 2022, there is still no specific legislative framework. They continue to remain vulnerable to exploitation, both economically and socially. At local levels, civil society organizations, trade unions and other forms of collectives have organized these workers to improve their working conditions to some extent. At the national level, groupings such as National Domestic Workers Platform or the National Domestic Workers Movement have taken up the broader issues of policy / legislative formulation for domestic workers. To accelerate the process, in 2017 the National Domestic Workers Platform drafted the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill for the consideration of the Indian Government, but it did not find the requisite political support.  

Some years back, the enactment of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008 raised hopes of millions of workers in the informal sector, including domestic workers, of getting much-awaited social protection. However, to their utter dismay this act has barely been implemented in most states. The Supreme Court has come down heavily upon state governments to initiate registration of domestic workers and had directed the central government not to disburse funds to those states who have failed to do so. However, states have not paid much heed to the Supreme Court’s direction.   


Policy in progress

The government is considering a draft national policy on domestic workers, which among other issues shall focus on the inclusion of domestic workers in existing legislations, right to register as workers, right to form unions, right to minimum wages, access to social security, establishment of a mechanism to regulate placement agencies and right to enhance their professional skills and career progression. This, if realised, would be a step in the right direction.


A firm commitment is the need of the moment

The COVID-19 pandemic has come as a wake-up call for policy makers in India to focus upon the vulnerable sections of the workforce, including domestic workers. In the new normal, setting a policy and ultimately legislative framework extending coverage to domestic workers under the Code on Wages and in the soon-to-be-formulated Code on Social Security would go a long way towards improving and formalizing the employment of domestic workers. Furthermore, ratification of international instruments by the Government of India, such as the ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers, would affirm the government’s commitment towards improving the conditions of this segment of the workforce.


About the author

Anup Srivastava is a Program Adviser for Labour and Industrial Relations at the FES India Office. For more information on the work by FES in India contact the FES office in New Delhi and follow the official Facebook fan page for regular updates. 

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.