Dignity is all we need: Domestic help in India

Need a law to protect house-helps, say NGOs


February 5, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Dignity is all we need: Domestic help in India

Domestic workers remain in the shadows and unless it involves a crime, they and their plight are seldom talked about (Representational image)

Indian homes have witnessed a 120 pc increase in domestic workers in the last few years. However, unless there is a major story worth the coverage, the hardships they face on a daily basis are rarely ever talked about.

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“I was asked not to use the washroom even though I cleaned it. They asked me to go to public toilets. I often used to use the washroom while nobody was watching me but one day I was caught and they fired me. Was I less human than them in any manner,” asks Anita, domestic worker, sitting in the park of a DDA society in south Delhi.

Anita, who is in her early forties, says that she has been working in the society for the past 16 to 17 years. As her husband does not work, the household runs on Anita’s income alone. Currently, she has found employment at two houses and is earning INR 4,000 per month.

Even though domestic workers constitute one of the major segments of the informal economy in India, there is little awareness of them or their problems and even lesser data. The Census puts the number of female domestic workers in cities at close to 4.75 million in 2011. However, the figure is heavily disputed by activists who cite the data put out by the International Labour Organisation which estimates the number of domestic workers at close to 80 million. Yet, domestic workers remain in the shadows and unless it involves a crime, they and their plight are seldom talked about in the media.

‘No lunch-breaks, no holidays for us’

Located on the outskirts of Delhi is Shahabad Dairy. The locality has around a thousand homes mostly inhabited by the labour force. The women in these families work as maids in the nearby area of Rohini.

A resident of the locality, 35-year-old Hanifa washes utensils in five homes in sector 25 of Rohini. She married off her daughter after Class tenth and her son, who is in class seventh, is dependent on her.

Commenting on her daily routine, Hanifa says, “I finish chores at home by 7 am and then set out to work. It takes me about one hour at each house and I go on foot. I manage to finish work by noon. If someone asks me to do extra work, it takes longer.”

So, when does she have lunch? She smiles and says, “Ours is not an office job that has a set lunch break. If someone offers something, I eat it. Otherwise, I have lunch only after returning home.”

“Even if we bring lunch to work, there is no time,” Asha interjects. Asha hails from Kishanganj, Bihar and has been living and working in Delhi for four now. She says that working as a maid is not a problem, but sometimes, the attitude of ‘madams’ (her employers) is offensive.

Poonam, 30, works as domestic help and her husband is a driver. She starts work at nine in the morning and returns home around three in the afternoon. She makes INR 5,500 per month. She spends on school tuition fee for her child, travel, uniform, books, leaving her with no savings. Poonam works every day of the month because even a single day off means a deduction in salary.

All domestic workers share the grievance regarding off days. “We too have a family,” says Asha. “Sometimes, relatives visit us, sometimes our kids get sick. But whenever we ask for leave, madam tells us we should not have taken up the work if we needed leaves. If we stop working, how would we feed the family?”

Known for its wide roads, grand houses and expensive cars, south Delhi is comparatively more elitist than the rest of the city. But the maids working in these ‘big’ houses have small hopes from their employers.

Ginni, 29, cooks at two homes in a DDA society near Greater Kailash II. “I leave for work at 7 am and return by noon. The work is fine but it is offensive that madam offers me food in separate utensils. If I can cook food for them, why can’t I eat in the same utensils,” she asks.

“There is no fixed time for lunch. No one allows us to sit at their home and eat. They do not even offer water. Once I was having lunch in the park and felt thirsty. So I knocked on a door and asked for water. Madam, who had opened the door, shouted at me for waking her up from sleep. They do not respect us,” she adds.

No praise and no upraise

Most of the domestic workers are either completely illiterate or literate enough to just write their names. None of them is aware of the various laws regarding violence, molestation and other abusive behaviours. When asked about sexual violence, they go silent. They deny having any such personal experience but do not dismiss the possibility of such incidents in some houses.

Among the workforce, bonus, appraisals and allowances are commonly discussed issues. But these domestic workers continue to work for the same salary for years.

“I have been working at the same salary for the past two years,” says Sharda. “Expenses have increased and so has inflation, but the salary is the same. One day I gathered the courage to ask for a raise, but she refused outright. The next day she scolded me so badly for no reason, that I cried,” she adds.

While most of them remain unaware of the monetary value of their work, laws and how to address their issues, they are sure that they need to fight for their self-respect. “We rarely get praised by our employers. A little dignity is all we need,” they say.

Lack of laws

Shakti Vahini is an organisation that has long been working on matters regarding domestic workers and human trafficking in Delhi and a few nearby cities. Hrishikant Verma, vice president of the organisation says, “Women and young girls working at homes are not even aware where to complain if they face any kind of harassment. These workers have no knowledge regarding any of the laws.”

There are only two laws in the country that grants domestic workers ‘labour’ status. First, Unorganised Labour Social Security Act, 2008 and second, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013. But none of the laws talks about any legal framework regarding the rights of domestic workers.

Verma considers the government responsible for the condition. “I do not understand why there is no talk of this. Why is the central government, or Delhi government, not introducing a law since so many cases are reported here daily. By not enacting a law, the message is clear that exploitation will continue and the government will turn a blind eye.”

The attitude of the government towards the plight of domestic workers has been quite shaky, according to most of the members of the organisations that are working towards the upliftment of housemaids. Verma further says that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is working to ensure the rights of domestic workers worldwide. Though India signed the 189th Treaty of ILO, which specifically speaks about the rights of domestic workers, its rules have not been implemented.

Since the problems faced by domestic workers are largely behavioural, he also feels that a law cannot change it but monitoring is important. “It cannot be guaranteed that there will be a change in the attitude in the homes where they work. The government needs to keep a watch. A change of heart is not possible but the government needs to set up committees and monitor it. We should at least address that it is one of the largest sectors of informal employment in our country and needs to be looked after,” says Verma.



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