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Maid in India: She Can Cook, Clean, But She Can’t Have Rights

Why are domestic workers not taken seriously as workers with rights?

Updated
India
3 min read
Maid in India: She Can Cook, Clean, But She Can’t Have Rights

Nobody recognises our effort. We have no identity... We have lost ourselves in this selfish world.
— Rupa, a domestic worker working in Delhi

Who does a domestic worker go to, when she doesn’t get minimum wages and mandatory offs; who does she complain to when she is abused at work? There is, sadly, still no law that brings India’s 4.5 million domestic workers under the ambit of the law.

There is a looming human rights crisis close to our homes. The situation of domestic workers in India is a failure of all kinds of rights.
— Rishi Kant, Director of Shakti Vahini, an NGO protecting and defending human rights

A drive by Shakti Vahini to make women aware of human trafficking in Alipurduar, West Bengal. (Photo: Facebook)

Rishi may speak from experience — his organization, Shakti Vahini regularly rescues women who’ve been trafficked as domestic labour. The most recent rescue operation involved a ‘subject’ from the elusive Paharia community of Jharkhand, who ran away from the posh house in Gurgaon where she was brought to work.

Domestic workers are paid as less as Rs 5000, and in some cases not paid at all, says Rishi.

Labour activists allege that the labour office merely gives them ‘advice’ on how to approach a case where minimum wages haven’t been paid, but doesn’t give them any redressal. That’s because the Minimum Wages Act 1948 doesn’t take domestic workers into account.

Who Will Help Domestic Workers?

Till the time there is no law, how can you help anyone? And given the condition of the parliament, the domestic workers act may take a (long) time to come.

— Dr Onkar Sharma, Regional Labour Commissioner, Delhi

Caught between the labour ministry and the lawmakers of this country, the domestic worker has been languishing for many years now. Even though the talk of creating a domestic workers bill was started during UPA’s time, it has still not seen the light of the day.

The result, a classic blame game, where the labour commission says it can’t do anything till the law is made, and the lawmakers, viz. politicians saying their hands are tied, busy as they are fighting a stalemate at the parliament.

Members of the National Domestic Workers Movement at a gathering. (Photo: NDWM)

Hope for Domestic Workers?

The new policy on domestic workers, which is to be tabled to the Union Cabinet, could be a fresh start. It proposes a minimum salary of Rs 9,000 per month for full-time household helps, along with maternity benefits, social security cover and mandatory leave of 15 days a year.

But policies are aplenty in our country, it’s the implementation which is a problem.

Even though 8 states, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand, have a fixed minimum wage for domestic workers, violations still take place because of a lack of complaints mechanism.

— Christy Mary, National Coordinator for National Domestic Workers Movement

What’s more shocking is that domestic workers still don’t have a legal definition in the country.

The (proposed ) act will at least give a legal definition to domestic workers. We have a lot of hopes from this act.. we hope that it becomes a law soon.

—Rishi Kant, Director, Shakti Vahini

Lack of a Solid Policy?

This is not the first time a solid policy on domestic workers was tabled. It was introduced even by the previous government. But policies lack teeth – a policy is not a binding instrument, unless it is made into a legislation and carries strong punitive action against those guilty.

We see a lack of commitment from the labour ministry for domestic workers. They are lethargic. When we approach labour ministry officers on cases like lack of social security or payment of wages, they just give us guidance and don’t take responsibility.


—Christy Mary, National Coordinator for National Domestic Workers Movement

Not all blame can be pinned on the labour ministry, in the absence of a strong law. But the ministry should devise a mechanism where they set up a welfare board for domestic workers with a strong redressal body.

Something must be done to make lives easier for those who make our lives easier. For it is the everyday battles that burden India’s domestic workers the most – a battle for survival, dignity, and negotiating for the most basic of work demands. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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