Amid several incidents of violence against domestic workers, activists and experts have said a stringent law is the need of the hour to ensure that house helps and their rights are protected.
The absence of such a law leaves domestic workers vulnerable and exposes them to abuse and exploitation, they said.
Recently, Seema Patra, wife of ex-IAS officer Maheshwar Patra, was arrested by the Ranchi police for brutally assaulting and harassing her house help.
Reportedly, Patra kept her house help hungry and thirsty for days. She also thrashed her regularly and broke her teeth with an iron rod.
In a similar case in May, a 48-year-old house help was allegedly thrashed and her hair chopped off by her employers in West Delhi’s Rajouri Garden.
Social activists working for the rehabilitation of domestic workers and experts pointed out various lacunae in the system that leave house helps vulnerable.
Anushree Jairath, programme coordinator, Gender Justice Team, Oxfam India said domestic workers are invisibilised in society and hence vulnerable to exploitation, harassment, forced labour and gender-based violence.
“Social norms around care work being the responsibility of women and not seeing it as ‘work’ further undervalues domestic workers. This results in below minimum wages and exploitative working conditions,” she said.
She said a dearth of laws protecting the rights of domestic workers adds to this exploitation.
“At the global level, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has devised powerful policies which empower workers. However, India has neither ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention No 189 (which recognises domestic workers as workers and advocates for their rights) nor the ILO Forced Labour Protocol (which requires member states to take effective measures to prevent forced labour, protect victims and ensure justice),” she said.
At the national level, Jairath said, domestic workers come under the purview of and are recognised under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act (UWSSA).
“Some states like Maharashtra, Odisha and Karnataka have established welfare boards and fixed minimum wages but this has helped only a handful of workers. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 can also be applicable in the case of domestic workers,” she said.
But the Act does not recognise domestic workers as rights bearing workers and there is little understanding of the law on the ground. Lastly, the Ministry of Labour and Employment has also come up with a National Policy on Domestic Workers but it is yet to be passed as a bill, she added.
“Therefore, there is a dire need for a comprehensive national policy on domestic workers. However, the policy will only be a success if it addresses intersecting issues like the caste and class divide amongst employers and workers, religion-based discrimination, migration, trafficking, child labour and gender-based violence,” Jairath said.
Manasi Mishra, head of department, Research and Knowledge Unit, Centre for Social Research said if sexual exploitation is involved then domestic workers are covered under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (POSH) as the house they are working in is their workplace.
“But for a wider coverage, they must be covered by the local complaints committee that is headed by the district commissioner or deputy commissioner of that district,” she said.
Mishra also pointed out that the lack of awareness among officials and domestic workers of their rights is also a matter of concern.
“In many states, even the district commissioners are not aware of the rights of these domestic workers. By default, they are the presiding officer of this local complaints committee.
“We are trying to do advocacy but information circulation is completely missing and neither the government is taking any steps to mobilise people or DCs,” she added.
According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), India has around 40 lakh domestic workers and nearly two-thirds of them are women.
Ruth Manorama, a social activist, said it is generally seen that children from tribal areas are picked up by posh households when they are as young as 7 or 8 years old and made to work as house helps for many years. During this time, they are often abused and harassed.
“Women and children who are staying and working (in a house) are very poorly treated and there is no law really covering them,” she said.
A separate law covering the entire gamut of provisions must be brought in to protect domestic workers, she added.
According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 475 people were trafficked for domestic servitude in 2021. The number is based on data collected from Anti-Human Trafficking Units and the actual figure may be much higher.
One such woman is 23-year-old Aradhana (name changed) who was sold to a posh home in Lucknow at the age of 10.
“I was beaten up and kept in chains but no help came. Finally one day, I ran away and rescued myself,” she said.
Aradhana now works as a domestic help at several houses in Gautam Buddha Nagar.
“I work on my own terms and make sure no one can ever ill-treat or exploit me. But there are so many others who are still caught up in this vicious cycle and are not even able to reach out for help,” she said.