With the lockdown affecting their employment, there is an urgency to bring in a new legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers.

Domestic workers in Bengaluru
news Labour rights Wednesday, May 06, 2020 - 08:30

Have you ever imagined working a job with no scope for a pay hike, where you are met with realities of harassment and abuse, and are fearful of the repercussions of taking the legal recourse? This is the reality that domestic workers in Karnataka and even across India have been facing for decades. When the lockdown began due to the coronavirus pandemic, we witnessed the privileged upload videos of doing household chores and “recognising the importance” of domestic workers. And yet, this sector of employees in Karnataka and across the country have long been underpaid. The trafficking of women and children for domestic work too remains largely unrecognised. 

Stuck in the situational necessity of supporting their families and providing better livelihood options for their children, domestic workers in Karnataka have long struggled to be recognised as a workforce. Comprising largely women, the domestic workers’ endeavour to stop the cycle of abuse, harassment and injustice, has only been met with multiple hurdles in the form of governments in the state failing to push for a stronger legislation that recognises their rights.

Karnataka, however, is one among few states in India, along with Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Rajasthan, Kerala and Jharkhand, which have issued a notification declaring that domestic workers must get minimum wages. 

According to the revised notification issued by the Department of Labour and Skill Development in 2017, the minimum wages set for domestic workers for washing clothes, dishes, cleaning and cooking, is Rs 37.50 for the first hour followed by Rs 22.50 for every successive hour. The minimum daily wage for eight hours of work is set at Rs 195 and the monthly wage is around Rs 5,070. This was further revised in 2019 and the department has set the minimum wage for domestic workers to Rs 13,000 per month depending on the work they do. 

However, the lack of a strong policy to protect their rights has resulted in the minimum wages notification being a paper tiger, while domestic workers still continue to struggle for adequate wages. 

Inadequate income and the struggle to demand for more

Manjula, a 35-year-old domestic worker in Bengaluru is employed in three households in the Koramanagala and Teachers’ Colony. In the 12 years she has worked in this sector, Manjula has never been allowed the privilege of demanding a pay hike. “My employers have always said, ‘well, if it’s not you, then there will be someone else to work for the money I am paying’,” she said. Manjula’s husband is employed with a packing and moving company. The lockdown has resulted in reduced familial income and she is now the sole breadwinner for her family. 

“I have to pay school fees. I have two kids and we decided to send them to a private school so they can learn English and earn good money. Even before the lockdown, we struggled to pay the fees,” she said. 

Manjula earns Rs 8,000 per month and works at four different households everyday. With the lockdown, she is now able to resume work in only two households as two other employers have let her go. 

“The government itself has said we should be paid Rs 5,000 per household but the problem is big. If I file a complaint with the government, they will begin an inquiry and call my employer. My employers will let me go and find someone else. This is just like that. I have complained once before and lost employment. It took me four months to look for employment again,” Manjula said. 

Many domestic workers in Karnataka face similar struggles. Manjula, however, maintains that there are only a few employers, who pay domestic workers enough money and also ensure that they are not overworked. 

“We have to go the extra mile and do extra work. Or we won’t be able to ask for a pay hike. I have been struggling to get a pay hike since the last two years. I only asked for a Rs 500 increment but my employers refused,” she added. 

No redressal for abuse, harassment

In 2018, Anuroopa*, a 22-year-old woman from Mahatrashtra’s Satara, came to Bengaluru to work as a domestic worker at the home of a family of six in Bengaluru’s Teacher’s Colony. Anuroopa’s father died that year due to a heart-related ailment. With her brother unwilling to work, she decided to take the job in Bengaluru, which promised to pay Rs 10,000 per month on the condition that she stay with the family. Anuroop heard of the job through an employment agency. 

For nine months starting February of 2018, Anuroopa said she endured verbal abuse and harassment, as she wanted to send money back home to her mother and brother. She said that her employers would give her two slices of bread with a cup of coffee for breakfast. Her next meal was dinner, which included two rotis and a small cup of dal. 

“I started getting weak. No matter how hard I worked or cleaned, it was never enough. There was a man, his wife, two children and the man’s parents. Except for the children, all four of them would hurl abuses at me. They would also beat me up. By October, I had lost a lot of weight, I had become too weak to work. So, I just left one morning without telling them,” she said. 

Like Anuroopa, many women and adolescent girls are brought in from other states to perform domestic work. Geeta Menon, founder of Stree Jagruthi Samiti, an NGO that fights for the rights of domestic workers, said that she has seen many cases of trafficking of women for the purpose of domestic labour and that there is a need to regulate employment agencies and this can happen only if there is a strong legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers. 

Why Karnataka needs a strong legislation for domestic workers

Geeta Menon, who helped bring together the Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Union, maintains that although domestic workers constitute a significant portion of the country’s workforce, these workers rarely get time off, are often overworked, underpaid, and do not have benefits including health insurance and pension. 

“With a strong legislation, this sector of unorganised workers must be recognised as a workforce first and foremost. There must be mechanisms to ensure that their grievances are addressed effectively and action is taken so it doesn’t affect their chances of losing employment,” she said. 

Stree Jagruthi Samiti and the Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Union conducted extensive consultations with domestic workers in the state and formulated a draft policy for the workforce. 

The policy includes a definition of who a domestic worker is and the various categories of jobs performed. The policy calls for decent work conditions, limitations in working hours, workable living wage, rest periods, paid leave, sick leave and maternity leave. It also calls for pension and insurance benefits. 

“The policy or a new legislation should include institutional mechanisms to provide social security, social protection, fair terms of employment, a process to register themselves as domestic workers, form their own associations and unions and also promote skill development as domestic work requires a certain skill set,” Geeta Menon added.

In 2009, the Karnataka government had set up the Unorganised Workers Social Security and Welfare Board. Domestic workers were recognised as workers under the unorganised sector in 2004 in the state. However, Geeta Menon maintains that the board has not taken any measures to push for a strong policy and has neither effectively implemented the minimum wage notification. 

“There are no laws to mandate implementation of the minimum wage notification for domestic workers. The officers at the board end up telling domestic workers to settle the dispute themselves. These women are scared of going to the police due to stigma. There is a need for a strong legislation first to protect their rights and then to regulate employment agencies,” she added. 

According to Chidanand, Joint Secretary of the Unorganised Workers Social Security and Welfare Board, the government is issuing ID cards to recognise domestic workers as a workforce. However, there has been no move to introduce such a legislation. “Currently, the problem is that people do not want to pay more. If we intervene, these domestic workers will lose their jobs. If the government passes a law that has certain regulations, we can implement it,” he added. 

Maitreyi, a lawyer with Alternative Law Forum, says that there are provisions under the Minimum Wages Act and the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, which allow for the state governments to formulate new laws to protect them. 

“More than 5% of domestic workers in Karnataka come from other states through contractors. Most of them come through placement agencies. They come from impoverished families in states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, etc. Besides, state governments have issued advisories to protect domestic workers and that constitutes as an order,” she added. 

On March 31 earlier this year, in the case of Alakh Alok Srivastava versus Union of India, the Supreme Court stated, “Disobedience to an order promulgated by a public servant would result in punishment under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. An advisory which is in the nature of an order made by the public authority attracts section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. We trust and expect that all concerned namely, state governments, public authorities and citizens of this country will faithfully comply with the directives, advisories and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety,” the order read. This was a case that dealt with the plight of migrant workers due to the COVID-19 lockdown. 

In March this year, the Karnataka government had issued an advisory asking those persons, who employ domestic workers, to not deduct their pay and to not terminate their employment during the lockdown. However, after the Supreme Court ruling, which states that an advisory is in the nature of an order, the state government has not followed up on implementing this advisory. 

“This means that an advisory too must be obeyed. The government must begin implementing it effectively. That’s where the problem lies,” Maitreyi added. 

Campaign for rights of domestic workers

A campaigning organisation, Jhatkaa.org in colloboration with Multiversal Advisory has started a petiton and missed call campaign to create awareness about the rights of domestic workers, especially during the lockdown. The number for the missed call campaign is 08061930288. 

"Being able to socially isolate is a privilege not readily available to all, but is also the only way to stop COVID19. Domestic workers living paycheck to paycheck are often unable to access government schemes with their job stability at the mercy of kind employers. We request Shivaram Hebbar, the Karnataka Labour Minister to mandate that no domestic worker should be called in to work during this time by ensuring their wages are given to them by their employers. The government alone cannot fight this, without our help. Give a missed call to 08061930288 if you agree that we all need to do our bit to survive this together," Harini Raghavan, co-founder of Multiversal Advisory and Manjushree C of Jhatkaa.org said in a statement.  

*Name(s) changed.

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