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Domestic help workforce in India exists without government or societal support

Thursday, 26 December 2013 - 8:41am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
In the wake of the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in the US on charges of ill-treatment to her maid, Amrita Nayak Dutta takes a close look at a workforce that exists without any support from the government and society.

Kausalya Bhangare is barely 40, but her thin stature and wrinkled face betrays her age. She starts her day very early, to complete her own household chores first, before setting off to help others in theirs. “I don’t get any weekly off. I think I work 17 hours a day,” says the domestic help dryly.

Labouring hard for seven days a week in five plush apartments in Bandra is of little help to Bhangare in her efforts to make ends meet. In the evening, the mother of two returns to her one-room tenement dead tired, and with a nagging body ache.

Bhangare’s life offers a glimpse into the grind that most domestic workers in the country go through as they eke out a miserable existence. What makes their struggle different from others is the lack of laws to provide them with secure work atmosphere, reasonable entitlements such as leave and insurance.

Add to that, cases of exploitation, ranging from beating, withholding of wages to sexual exploitation, leave them helpless. A majority of these workers are minors, with live-ins and migrants being the worst affected.

National Sample Survey Organisation (2009-10) data posits the number of domestic workers in India at 2.52 million, up from 1.62 million in 1999-2000. However, NGO sources working with domestic workers say it is as high as 7 million.

A few days ago, Janki Pawar, another domestic help from Mumbai was accused of theft at her employer’s place. “The family of four hurled nasty abuses at me, before throwing me out. I was helpless,” says Pawar.

Paid or unpaid, domestic work has never been considered as work in India. So for most people, reconsidering the rights of this ‘ghost’ workforce, either does not feature in their priority list or sits at the bottom.

While Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest and the alleged ill-treatment of her home help brought the focus on Indian paid domestic workers, it also brought with it a checklist, which showed how the country has failed in protecting them despite repeated push from unions, NGOs and citizens.

One of the important points in the checklist was to put them under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Once this done, the entire set of labour laws will be applicable to them, which will also take care of their social security issues.

A national policy on this was formulated in 2012 by the union labour ministry, but has not yet been notified. Absence of a legislation leaves a thin line between work and exploitation.

Zubair Ahmed, a journalist in Delhi, who has spent several years abroad, was appalled when he faced stiff opposition from his married female friends for paying his home help a little more than the average market rate and giving her weekly offs.

“They told me I was spoiling her habits. What I was doing was a standard practice abroad and I decided to continue it. Most people take pride in having provided their help with a small room and a toilet, thinking they have done them a great favour,” says Ahmed.

Sorry state of affairs
Every state has the same story to offer. For instance, in Maharashtra, a proposal is pending with the labour department to include domestic workers in the scheduled employment list of the state, which, so far, covers 68 categories of workers, including people from hotel and rubber industry.

“Domestic workers can be covered under the Minimum Wages Act, only if they are included in the scheduled employment list. We have sent a proposal for this to the labour ministry, but it is pending with them,” said S B Vanalkar, secretary of the advisory committee on labour commission.

Darker side of wealth
It is difficult for most middle-class Indians to imagine a day without their domestic help. Rapid urbanisation, high disposable incomes and more number of working women have increased the demand for domestic workers, say experts. However, very few realise that domestic workers have their own house to look after too and they can’t afford babysitters or helps themselves.

Not everyone sees a victim in domestic workers. Some accuse home help of acting as bullies.

Andheri resident Kalpana Singh alleges that her home help often does not turn up.

“Despite repeated warnings, she doesn’t even inform us on most occasions. We have to pander to her every whim. The only reason why she is still with us is because she is trustworthy,” says 45-year-old Singh.

Absence from home for long hours possibly was the reason why Goregaon resident Sharada Jiman’s seven-year-old daughter was raped and killed in 2011. “My husband was jobless at that time. So I had to leave my daughter home. That was the time when a neighbour attacked her.”

Clinging on to hope
The situation is a little better in Tamil Nadu, thanks to strong domestic workers’ unions, which have been aggressively battling to include domestic workers under the Act. In 2009, the state formed a minimum wages committee, but it is pending with the government. Sister Clara Ammal, joint secretary of Unorganised Workers’ Federation said, “We have recommended Rs50 per hour as the minimum wage.”  

On the other hand, the Kerala government has approved inclusion of domestic workers in the Act, but is yet to regularise it. As a result, if the minimum wage is not being paid to a domestic worker, he/she can hardly do anything about it.

So the struggle for the likes of Bhangare, Pawar, Jiman and millions of faceless workers continues. Bhangare has almost lost hopes of any improvement in her working conditions.

“Several times, we have been approached by people, given our photos and filled forms on the promise of better working conditions. But nothing happened after that,” says Bhangare as she prepares for another 17-hour toil.

The ‘ghost’ force
number of domestic workers in India as per NSSO (2009-10)

7mn the number of domestic workers according to NGO sources

4.2mn is the figure quoted  by the International Labour Org.
2/3 rd of the domestic workforce lives in urban India

57% are women

In tier 1 city like Mumbai, a home help earns anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs5,000 a month

Masters from hell
June 2009:
Actor Shiney Ahuja was arrested for raping his 20-year-old maid in his Oshiwara residence. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by a fast-track sessions court in 2011. Ahuja is currently out on bail.

December 2010: A 13-year-old boy was rescued from Malad after he was allegedly beaten up by a couple. The boy was starved, tied up and confined to a room. The employers would force him to cook even though he didn’t know how to cook.  They allegedly tried to throttle him many times.

November 2013: BSP MP Dhananjay and his wife Jagriti Singh, a dental surgeon, were arrested in connection with the death of their 35-year-old maid Rakhi Bhadra, a resident of West Bengal.

Both are currently in jail.

October 2013: A top MNC executive was accused of harassing her help, a tribal girl from Jharkhand, at her Delhi home. It was alleged that the woman would peel off the girl’s skin with knives and hit her with utensils and keep her confined in semi-naked.

July 2013: An MBBS doctor and his wife, along with their servant, were arrested for allegedly harassing their 22-year-old domestic help in Lucknow. The alleged burned her with cigarette butts and forcibly chopped her hair

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