They are largely unseen, unsung and discriminated against. That is why there was such surprise when domestic workers actually protested in the NCR a while ago – they are meant to serve silently and ask for no rights. This has largely been due to the lack of proper legal safety nets. Now the labour and employment ministry is set to give legal status to domestic workers by formulating a national policy that will ensure that they get minimum wages and equal remuneration. When this comes into effect, it will cover 47.5 lakh domestic workers. The policy will expand the scope of legislation, policies and programmes which will give domestic workers rights that are present in laws meant for other categories of workers. Domestic helps will then be registered as workers with the labour department. Part-time and full-time workers, employers and placement agencies will be clearly defined and institutional mechanisms set up to cover social security, terms of employment, grievance redressal and conflict resolution for domestic workers.
Placement agencies have often shortchanged both the worker and employer for profits. Domestic workers are often not given the full picture of the terms of their employment and vice versa. In some cases, unable to meet the expectations of the employer, the domestic worker is subjected to humiliation and abuse. He or she has little recourse to the law or indeed power to secure justice. Employers often make household help work long hours, shortchange them on salary and food and do not afford them any leave. They are coerced into doing jobs for which they are not qualified by employers who are able to blackmail or threaten them.
In a few cases, domestic workers have suffered grievous mental and physical harm at the hands of employers. The policy will also promote pensions, health insurance and maternity benefits. The domestic worker today has no security of employment and certainly no fallback in case of a sudden inability to work.
The question of old age pension is left very much to the discretion of the employer. Many Indians tend to treat domestic help as inferior and not worthy of rights even though their homes are run by them, their food cooked by them and their children looked after by them. Such attitudes take a long time to change. But if the law weighs in on the side of domestic workers strongly, they will at least get a fair deal for the often strenuous work they have to do. It will be become that much more difficult to treat them as wage slaves who are expected to be at the beck and call of employers round the clock.