In April, after yet another story of maid abuse came out in the open, a news magazine ran a cover story titled, ‘The new slaves’. While many would cringe at the thought of equating domestic workers with slaves, unfortunately that is exactly how many families treat their domestic help, taking advantage of a crowded labour market, lack of a credible support system for the help, weak implementation of criminal laws and a tardy justice delivery system.
The patently unequal relationship that exists between a domestic worker and her employer will hopefully see some change if the Cabinet passes the first-ever national policy for domestic workers. The policy hopes to bring domestic workers under seven existing laws: the minimum wages Act, trade union Act, payment of wages Act, workmen’s compensation Act, maternity benefit Act, contract labour Act and equal remuneration Act.
While we wait for the Cabinet approval for this policy, on Thursday, the Cabinet passed another Bill that seeks to rectify the domestic employee-employer relationship: the sexual harassment at the workplace Bill. Domestic workers — according to estimates, there are 90 million domestic workers in India — have been included as part of the Bill for the first time.
While the Centre has been trying to bring in an over-arching law to shield domestic workers from abuse, thanks to years of campaigning by NGOs, some states have already initiated legislation.
For instance, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have included domestic workers in the legal provisions for minimum wage; Tamil Nadu has included domestic work in the manual labour Act and also has a Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board.
The domestic workers’ issue is not just about their abuse by their employers. Behind every domestic worker, there is a string of sub-stories: dwindling economic opportunities in rural areas, migration, child and women trafficking and disregard on the part of the authorities of the constitutional rights of these people.
For example, while children enjoy the right to education, 12.6 million don’t go to school because they work as domestic help. And those who engage them are flouting labour laws because they are employing under-age children. Of the 12.6 million children who work as domestics, 86% are girls and 25% of them are below 14. The other problem is that the agencies that supply domestic help are often fly-by-night operators.
In Delhi alone, only 269 of the approximately 2, 300 agencies are registered. Therefore, the issue of abuse of domestic help should not be seen as a human relationship problem but a full blown law and order problem that can only be dealt with by implementing the law effectively.