Gender and Economic Policy Discussion Forum XXI

Gender and Economic Policy Discussion Forum XXI

‘Visibilising the Invisible: Mobilizations of Domestic Workers and the Regulation of Domestic Work in India’
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Venue: Magnolia Hall, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003

Mobilizations of Domestic Workers and the Regulation of Domestic Work in India

Domestic work in India is a highly feminised sector of work, with the sector seeing a phenomenal increase in the numbers and proportion of women over the decades, but particularly since the late 1990s. Domestic work is also one of the largest sectors of work in urban areas, especially for women. The ease of entry, time flexibility, and the perceived lack of skills makes domestic work a ‘desirable’ occupation for women from urban slums. However, its performance by women, and the hegemonic perception that domestic work relates to women’s ‘natural roles’ have contributed to the invisibilisation and devaluation of domestic work.

The socio-demographic profiles of domestic workers indicate that the majority are ‘illiterate’, and that dalits and migrant communities form a large proportion of these workers (Neetha and Palriwala, 2010, Neetha 2013). Domestic work in India, as elsewhere, is characterized by poor working conditions, precarity of employment, poor or non-existent work benefits, lack of social protection, and caste, class and gendered discrimination (ILO 2013, Bhattacharya and Sinha 2009, Neetha and Palriwala 2010). In India, domestic workers began to mobilize for their rights as workers in the 1980s with early mobilizations focusing on working conditions, particularly on obtaining fair wages and adequate leave, and access to social security schemes by the government. By the late 1990s, there was a growth in domestic worker groups across the country reflecting the increase in the numbers of domestic workers themselves. However, these early efforts to mobilise domestic workers remained scattered. In the mid-2000s, both with the initiation of a consultation process by the National Commission for Women (NCW) to draw up a Draft Bill on Domestic Work, as well as the initiation of the standard-setting process by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on decent work for domestic workers, there were efforts to bring together domestic worker groups and to consolidate the claims-making on domestic work. The setting up of the Domestic Workers Rights Campaign (DWRC) during the NCW consultation process and the National Platform for Domestic Workers (NPDW) after the adoption of Convention 189 (the Domestic Workers Convention) in 2011 evidence the efforts to consolidate the mobilisations of domestic workers.

In spite of the more recent efforts to consolidate groups and claims-making, domestic work remains a highly unregulated sector of employment. Although there have been some significant gains made by domestic worker groups over the years, these remain sporadic and scattered. One of the significant gains has been through the inclusion of domestic work in the list of scheduled employment for minimum wages in a few states including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Assam. However, not all states have fixed minimum wage rates for domestic workers. Other interventions by the state have been through the enactment of legislation setting up domestic worker welfare boards to avail of social security provisions: Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the three states where welfare boards targeting domestic workers alone have been set up. However, there are several problems with the functioning of Domestic Worker Welfare Boards including the lack of the effective implementation of welfare schemes for domestic workers. Domestic workers have also been included as workers in the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act, 2013). Although a draft National Policy on Domestic Work was prepared in the run up to the deliberations of the Domestic Workers Convention 2010, this has remained a draft. In August 2015, a new draft National Policy was developed by the Ministry of Labour and Employment which has come under fire from domestic worker groups for not being able to adequately meet the expectations of domestic workers and their trade unions. The Policy proposes the possible introduction of an intermediate body between the domestic workers and their employers, the existence of which is not only ill-defined in the draft policy, but which also opens up the possibility of private contractors taking up this space, thereby rendering the employer-employee relationship obscure.

In light of this context, ISST, with the support of HBF proposes a day-long discussion forum on the ‘Mobilisations of Domestic Workers and the Regulation of Domestic Work’. The discussion is proposed around the following panels with this tentative agenda.

Panels 1 & 2: Mobilisation of Domestic Workers in India: Forms, Challenges and Successes

This panel seeks to address the contours of the mobilisations of domestic workers in India. Mobilising domestic workers is no easy task given that domestic work is characterised by invisibility, fragmentation, a multiplicity of employers, sporadic working hours coupled with the double burdens of work that domestic workers bear. Even so, particularly since the 1980s, there have been efforts to collectivise domestic workers. Further, there has been a growth of domestic worker groups across the country since the late 1990s reflecting the increase in the number of domestic workers themselves. However, until recently these efforts remained sporadic and scattered with efforts to coalesce the efforts of domestic worker groups gaining momentum only in recent years. This panel will examine the nature of mobilisation of domestic worker groups and the myriad forms these have taken including cooperatives, unions, sanghathans, entrepreneur models, NGO facilitated groups, etc. It will examine the challenges and successes groups have had in mobilising domestic workers, collective bargaining efforts with employers, and claims making targeting the state. It will also examine efforts to network with other unorganised sector workers, women’s groups, and to coalesce efforts of domestic worker groups themselves.

Panel 3: Regulation of Domestic Workers in India

Domestic work is a largely unregulated sector of employment, with very few laws and policies recognising domestic work as work, let alone regulating the nature and conditions of domestic work. Although there have been sporadic efforts to bring domestic work under the purview of law since the 1950s, it has only been in recent years that at the state level, and only in a few states, domestic work has been recognised as work. These efforts at regulation mainly target two aspects: the inclusion of domestic workers in the list of scheduled employment under the Minimum Wages Act of 1948 (followed by a notification setting minimum wages for domestic workers); and the enactment of legislation setting up domestic worker welfare boards to avail of social security provisions. At the national level, domestic workers have been recognised as workers in a few legislations targeted at the unorganised sector and at the working conditions of women: the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. A 2006 amendment to the Child Law (Prohibition and Regulation Act) 1986, which banned children below the age of 14 years from being employed as domestic workers is another national level legislation that specifically targets domestic work.

However even in a context of these limited gains, there are issues, for instance, in the ways in which the wages are calculated, the kinds of gendered and caste based assumptions that are made in fixing tasks, etc. Moreover, efforts to regulate domestic work more comprehensively at the national level have remained unsuccessful with a National Policy on Domestic Workers drafted by a Task Force on Domestic Work remaining a draft. The more recent policy on domestic work drawn up by this government in August 2015 has drawn heavy criticism from domestic worker groups. Moreover, the government’s interest in regulating domestic work stands in contrast to their policy of not ratifying ILO Convention 189.

This panel will examine in some detail the effectiveness of the legislations that do currently regulate domestic work, and will also delve in the detail of the proposed new policy on domestic workers.


Shalini Yog Shah
Deputy Director