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Cover Story

Chore bazaar


Home cannot be workplace, thus sweeping, swabbing and childcare cannot be categorised as work. With this kind of skewed logic, how can domestic workers take recourse to labour laws or courts?

They cook, they clean, wash clothes, scour dishes and look after children and the elderly, often working long hours to earn enough to support entire families. But ironically enough, domestic help cannot be categorised as "workers" because they are engaged in "personal service".

Domestic work, the largest sector of employment for women in urban India and a sector estimated to employ 4. 75 million in the country, is not in the central government's list of scheduled employment. And the promise of minimum wage made as far back as 1959 in the first Bill on domestic work still remains an unfulfilled dream.

Data collection for this sector is a nightmare because it is extremely difficult to track and enumerate domestic workers. Pressure from scholars and activists to recognise the significance of paid domestic work in female employment led to the creation of a category "private households with employed persons" in the surveys on employment and unemployment carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation since 1999. As per the 2004-05 survey, of the 4. 75 million domestic workers, over 3 million were women. While the number of housemaids increased over fivefold, the biggest jump was in persons employed as babysitters/ayahs - almost 27 times from just 2, 600 to 69, 600. Persons employed as cooks increased 15 fold.

Between, 1999-2000 and 2004-05, there was a massive jump in the number of people doing domestic work - an almost 600 per cent jump from about 4. 5 lakh to 25. 5 lakh. This is said to have been caused by large-scale distress migration from rural areas. The numbers for the years 2009-10 are not in yet but researchers say they have not risen substantially. This could be due to MNREGA's role in reducing the severity of rural distress.

There is a fundamental problem with how the establishment approaches the issue of domestic labour. Since domestic work is categorised as 'personal service' - home is not viewed as workplace - domestic workers have no prescribed minimum wage and no recourse to labour laws or labour courts in case of a dispute with the employer.

In many parts of India, both rural and urban, the wage for domestic work is less than the national floor level minimum wage, which is Rs 115 per day or about Rs 3, 000 per month. Only five states, Karnataka, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala have fixed minimum wages for domestic work. Barring Kerala, the minimum wage fixed for domestic work in all these states is below even the national floor level minimum wage.

"The availability of surplus labour, especially in urban areas, makes it difficult for domestic workers to negotiate better wages. They lose employment if they bargain for higher wages because the employers know that they can easily be replaced, " explains Neetha N, senior fellow at the Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS) who has been researching the issue of domestic workers for over a decade. Domestic work is the most readily available employment for migrants and the least difficult to enter. It is also perceived as unskilled work which is an extension of the work that women naturally do in their own homes, observes Neetha in a paper published on the subject.
Feminist scholars have pointed out how patriarchal socio-economic norms devalue care work and refuse to recognise that the homemaker is a worker. According to N Vasanthi, associate professor at the NALSAR university of law in Hyderabad, the same domestic work, i. e. housekeeping or cooking, cleaning and care when done in the public sphere - in offices and factories and other establishments - gets counted as work. Vasanthi says this reveals the "undervaluation and invisibility" of domestic work.

In Andhra, the minimum monthly wages of unskilled workers were fixed thus: scavengers and helpers in the bakery industry, Rs 4, 844 per month;plantation workers, Rs 4, 500 and construction workers, Rs 5, 130 per month. But the minimum monthly wage for domestic work was the least - Rs 2, 600.

Beyond the fact that it finally recognised domestic work as "work", this notification offered little else. "There is no registration of the domestic worker, no salary slip, nothing that mandates that an employer maintain a register. How can a worker complain before the labour commissioner about unfair wages with no proof of employement? For all practical purposes there is no minimum wage, since it is not enforceable, " says Neetha. To further complicate the matter, there is no consensus on how wages should be calculated. Should it depend on the num- of hours? Should it be skill based? Task based? Within two hours of work, a domestic worker might do half an hour of washing dishes, half an hour of child care and maybe 45 minutes of cooking and 15 minutes of dusting. "I think an hourly minimum wage, no matter what work you do, would be the best. Beyond the uniform minimum, let the rest be left to market negotiation. That will be easier to calculate for the sake of enforcement too, " says Neetha.
However, there are many who do not agree with her. Anita Kapoor of the Shakari Mahila Kaamgar Union in Delhi points out that many workers fear that a fixed hourly minimum could pull down the rate for cooking, which usually gets paid more. Anita also talks of the difficulty in organising domestic workers whose workplaces are scattered. "Getting together women working in individual houses, with the added complication of taking into account their personal relationship with employers, is not as easy as organising a bunch of workers in one factory, " says Anita.

While a small segment among domestic workers earn as much as Rs 10, 000-Rs 15, 000 in affluent areas - mostly those working for expatriates - for the majority, the possibility of a law that would ensure a decent wage and better working conditions seem a long way off.

Reader's opinion (1)

Vishal MittalMay 11th, 2013 at 08:25 AM

i dont complety agree because even in cities like chandigarh its the employer who bargains not the people are in need of them they arent i need of us cause there is plenty of work out there

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