India's labor ministry is currently preparing legislation to provide social security for domestic workers. But rights groups say more legal protection against mistreatment is necessary. Murali Krishnan reports.
Stories of wealthy families in India physically abusing and mistreating young women employed as domestic workers in metropolitan areas are becoming more common in India.
In a high-profile case last July, a 26-year-old domestic worker from Bangladesh lodged a compliant with Indian police saying she had been beaten up and held captive by her employers at a home located in the upscale gated community of Noida, a suburb of New Delhi.
She was freed after friends and family gathered in protest outside the apartment complex where she was being held.
Her employers accused her of theft, but it was later discovered that she had not been paid for two months. The case is indicative of a larger trend of domestic workers in India being mistreated.
Earlier this year, domestic workers at a posh housing complex in Mumbai went on a strike to protest the residents' attempts to standardize below-average payment. The residents eventually conceded to the workers' demands, but a few months later, all of the protesting maids were sacked.
There have also been extreme cases of abuse - including the murder three years ago of a domestic worker in Delhi. A legislator and his wife were arrested in connection with the murder of the 35-year-old maid who worked in their home.
It was reported that prior to her death, the maid had been physically abused with a hot iron and was hit with sharp objects like antelope horns.
Where to turn for help?
There are widespread reports of domestic workers in India being underpaid, overworked and abused by their employers. Incidents range from withholding of wages to starvation, not allowing time for sleep or rest, and beatings, torture, and sexual abuse.
"Many resort to domestic work because of the decline of employment opportunities in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors," Pratchi Talwar, a social activist with Nirmala Niketan, an NGO that works with domestic workers, told DW, adding that domestic workers are vulnerable because they have no formal protection such as unions.
Concerned about the mistreatment of domestic workers, India's labor ministry has initiated a policy paper and invited all stakeholders to contribute to a national policy for domestic workers. It is intended to provide them with legal status and the protection of social security.
"The policy intends to set up an institutional mechanism for social security coverage, fair terms of employment, addressing grievances and resolving disputes," said Rajit Punhani, director general of labor welfare.
"It provides for recognizing domestic workers as a worker with the right to register themselves with the state labor department or any other suitable mechanism."
A vulnerable population
There is no exact figure for the number of domestic workers in India as they are mostly a floating population. Figures released from the National Sample Survey Office estimate they could range from anywhere between 4 to 10 million, many of whom migrate from the eastern states of Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh.
But trade unions and organizations working with domestic workers are not convinced that the ministry's policy paper is specific enough. The issue, they argue, has been on the backburner for several years.
"These are just guidelines which are not legally enforceable. What happens when there is sexual abuse, withholding salaries and denying leave?" Sonia Rani, project coordinator of the Self-employed Women's Association (SEWA), told DW. "Can the workers go to court? There also has to be a non-negotiable salary regime," she added.
Limits of the law
Other organizations like the National Domestic Workers Forum argue that neither the Maternity Benefits Act nor the Minimum Wages Act or any of the numerous other labor laws in India apply to domestic work. Domestic workers can be hired and fired at will and employers have no legally binding obligations.
"We need to introduce a national policy for domestic workers, begin the process of fixing minimum wages for them and recognize domestic workers as 'workers' with legal rights," Amarjit Kaur, national secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, told DW.
India has only two laws that in a roughly consider maids as workers - the Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act of 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013.
While the first law is a social welfare scheme, the other aims to protect working women in general. Importantly, neither law recognizes domestic workers as having legal rights.
"This approach by the ministry is piecemeal and not workable. We need to have an omnibus board that looks at the rights of workers employed across sectors from construction and agriculture to domestic," Dunu Roy, social activist who has worked actively in the informal sector, told DW.
Roy cites the example of Mathadi workers (head loaders) of Maharashtra, who fought a long and hard battle to secure their wages and are now governed by a welfare board that protects their rights.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has also not been behind in flagging domestic workers as part of the country's invisible workforce and emphasized that more needs to be done to make decent work a reality for them.
In welcoming the Indian government initiative to formulate a national policy on domestic workers, the ILO said it is an important step in recognizing the rights of millions of domestic workers.
India is a signatory to the ILO's 189th convention, known as the Convention on Domestic Workers, but has not ratified it yet.
"Though a number of states in India have been promoting minimum wages for domestic workers, there are not enough mechanisms in place to regulate working conditions of domestic workers,” Suneetha Eluri, ILO's national project coordinator for domestic workers, told DW.
Across the world, domestic work is a rapidly growing source of employment for women and girls. Unions and organizations argue that the mindset regarding domestic workers must shift from a policy paradigm to one that focuses on workers' rights. Only then, can domestic workers' rights be defined and protected.