IT is indeed ironical that just a day after the ILO facilitated a national stakeholders meeting on a proposed National Policy for Domestic Workers for the government of India at New Delhi on July 11, the incidents of violence and repression in Noida happened after the news spread that a domestic worker had been wrongfully confined by her employer in a posh apartment complex. It was all the more ironical because the Director General of Labour Welfare (DGLW) who introduced the policy seemed rather apologetic about the exercise, pointing out that "some people were of the opinion that our country was not ready to adopt a policy for domestic workers because of the feudal mindset that still existed in our society." This “feudal mindset” was equally evident in the interventions made by a member of the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council (DWSSC) who told the gathering that part of the skill training involved "training domestic workers to be polite and submissive", a remark that invited a chorus of protest from the trade union representatives who were present at the meeting.
It was therefore not surprising that the representatives of domestic workers’ unions from different parts of the country, including central trade unions such as CITU, AITUC, INTUC, BMS, HMS and SEWA, as well as constituents of the National Platform for Domestic Workers came down heavily on the present government for dragging its feet on adopting a comprehensive legislation to regulate the working conditions of domestic workers in the country, and provide them social security benefits. With one voice, they told the government representatives that there had been enough debate on a policy, and simultaneous discussion was needed to pass new laws or amend existing labour laws to ensure that the objectives of the proposed policy would be actually implemented in order to benefit the workers.
The fact of the matter is that successive governments led by both the Congress and the BJP have been unwilling to introduce effective legal measures to end the exploitation of domestic workers, who continue to work for long hours at poor wages and without any social security including job security. In June 2011, the ILO passed a historic Convention 189 titled “Decent Work for Domestic Workers." Historic, because for the first time, there is an international covenant that puts a highly informal section of the workforce on par with other categories of workers and provides a framework for protective measures for them. Although India supported the Convention, six years down the line, it is yet to ratify it.
This is what the present labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha in March 2015 - "In India we ratify an ILO Convention only when the national laws and practices are brought fully into conformity with the provisions of the convention in question. Since the national laws and practices are not in conformity with the provisions of the convention, India has not yet ratified the ILO Convention No.189."
It is well known that ratification of the convention is itself a commitment to put in place policies and laws that will facilitate the implementation of its objectives! The government is actually playing a double game with domestic workers, announcing intentions to better their working conditions but actually doing nothing at the ground level to do so. The latest draft National Policy for Domestic Workers is but a rehash of any earlier draft that was published in 2011, flowing out of the recommendations of an Interministerial Task Force that was set up in 2009 when the ILO initiated discussions on C189. In fact many central TUs including CITU were kept out of these earlier deliberations.
The current draft suffers from many of the earlier weaknesses, including the basic definition of domestic workers. Participants pointed out the nature of paid domestic work within the household, and the fact that it is mostly done by women renders it different from other types of paid domestic service categories such as drivers and gardeners, etc. The nomenclature of “part time” and “full time” domestic workers fails to recognise the fact that the working day of many of them extends to more than 12 hours, only because they are so poorly paid that they have to work in several households in order to earn enough to make ends meet. Domestic work should not be considered as “unskilled” work. It was strongly felt that there should be a national floor minimum wage for domestic workers, which would put pressure on the state governments to follow suit and include them in their minimum wage schedules. There was severe opposition to the provision to pay the workers “in kind”. There is a need to register not just the domestic workers, but also the employers and include them in the regulatory framework. Along with protective measures for overseas migrant domestic workers, interstate migrant and anti-trafficking laws should also include domestic workers. Participants from those states where welfare boards have been set up, such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, etc asked for a comprehensive review of their performances, and for independent sources of funding (such as a cess on property taxes in urban areas) if welfare schemes were to be substantive in nature. Dispute redressal mechanisms need to be clearly spelt out. The class bias against domestic workers in existing training modules was pointed out. Most importantly, the policy does not address the various discriminatory practices faced by domestic workers, including caste and religious discrimination that is rampant in Indian households.
The question of how the policy is to be located in the attempt by the Modi government to do away with most labour laws and collapse all social security measures into a single Code without provision for fund or guarantee for benefits was also raised by the CITU representative Kiran Moghe, with a demand that the particularity of domestic work and the diversity of other types of employment should be respected and maintained in order to provide sector specific protective measures.
These are issues that have been raised time and again by organisations of domestic workers all over the country. But as the veteran leader Ruth Manorama remarked sharply, it is indeed the mindset of the ruling politicians and the bureaucrats that poses a hurdle for crores of domestic workers who have become conscious of their rights in the last few years. Challenging this mindset requires painstaking organisation of domestic workers so that they can be mobilised to launch militant struggles for their rights. Trade unions will need to further intensify their efforts in this direction.