The need to track working conditions and ensure protection of domestic workers

Many domestic workers are caught in a circle of vulnerability – they are from rural areas, migrants, have debts and violent husbands – that creates conditions for their exploitation. The lack of legal protection enables employers to get away scot free.
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In the past week, the Domestic Workers Rights Union that I am a part of worked with a woman whose circumstances show the necessity of ensuring that those who do domestic work for payment are recognised by the government as workers and ensured protection of the law, both in terms of financial security and social security.

We got a call last week about a woman who was sexually exploited by a relative of her employers and then beaten so badly by them that she had to be hospitalised for three days with a fractured rib. The doctor has advised her against working for the next three months. It is ironic that we celebrate International Domestic Workers’ Day (June 16), but there is no mechanism to punish those who exploited her vulnerability, assaulted her, and then called her a liar.

Sarita (name changed), a 29-year-old woman from a village in West Bengal, was brought to Bengaluru by her friend for work. For the past three months, she worked as a live-in worker at the house of an elderly couple in Bellandur, who treated her well.

Towards the end of May, her employers’ son-in-law visited them from Delhi. On May 20, the son-in-law tried to get into her bed. Somehow, she managed to avoid him. Two days later, the man offered her money to sleep with her which she accepted. He then took her to a hotel room where they had sex. Sarita told me she accepted the offer because she had loans to repay.

Sarita began to worry when she missed her period, and in panic, tried to go back to her village. When trying to leave the house, the couple’s other daughter who lives in Bengaluru found Sarita on the road near the house and took her back to the house. On learning what had happened, the daughter assaulted Sarita so badly that she broke her rib. Sarita’s employers accused her of trying to extort money from them by claiming that their son-in-law had coerced her into sex.

Finally, they allowed her to go, but we got a call from someone in our network and we found her at the railway station. We took her to a hospital and got her treated. Doctors said that she may have missed her period due to an extremely low haemoglobin count. As it was a medico legal case, the hospital reported it to the police. The police arrived and took her statement. She told them what had happened. Sarita said that the police repeatedly told her that if she filed a complaint, her employers would not pay for her medical expenses.

When we got Sarita discharged from the hospital, her employers’ daughter broke down and told us that her brother-in-law did offer Sarita money to sleep with him. But she tried to justify his actions by saying that her sister has been paralysed for many years.

Many domestic workers are in a similar situation. There is a circle of vulnerability — they are from rural areas, migrants, have debts and violent husbands — that creates conditions for their exploitation. The lack of legal protection enables employers to get away scot free. Sarita has refused to file a case. She constantly referred to her employers as “big people” whom she cannot fight both because she has no power to take them on and because she cannot afford to either due to the debt that she has to repay. She did not tell her employers what had happened to her and instead simply tried to go back home because she feared that nobody would believe her.

Sarita’s employers maintained throughout that she was a liar. They did not believe her when she told them that their son-in-law had initiated what had transpired. They paid her medical expenses and work compensation as she will not be able to work for three months. But that was to ease their own conscience and also perhaps out of fear of the Union’s involvement.

There is no system in place to track the working conditions of those employed as live-in domestic workers. Around seven years ago, the Union had done a study on employment agencies in Bengaluru that provide live-in help. We found five agencies in two zones that had been registered with the Labour Department, but around 25 were simply functioning with no recognition.

In Sarita’s case, when we went to the residential society that her employers live in, they were largely unhelpful. Neither the employers nor the society had any idea where Sarita is from and whom they can contact in case of an emergency for her. It has been the same situation in all cases of live-in domestic workers that have come to the Union.

We have told the Labour Department that we will help with efforts to put a system in place. There is a need to talk to resident welfare associations and large apartment complexes about recognising them as workplaces. Once that happens, systems can be created to track the working conditions of domestic workers and set up grievance redressal mechanisms. The district-level committees set up under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act don’t function and even if they did, apartments are not recognised as workplaces.

As we observe yet another International Domestic Workers’ Day, another year has passed with the government refusing to recognise women who do domestic labour as workers. The Indian government has not ratified Convention 189 of the International Labour Organisation on domestic work and this makes it harder to hold the government accountable to domestic workers.

Sarita’s case shows what can happen within the four walls of a home. It may be someone’s home, but for a domestic worker it is a workplace and should be covered as such by the law.

Geetha Menon is a member of the Domestic Workers Rights Union.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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