Without Regulation, India's Domestic Workers Face Low Pay and Other Abuses

Nari Shakti Manch, a  women's organisation,  celebrates International Workers day 2013 with oppressed domestic workers of Gurgaon. Image by Rajeev R Singh. Copyright Demotix (8/3/2013)

Nari Shakti Manch, a women's organisation, celebrates International Workers Day 2013 with oppressed domestic workers of Gurgaon. Image by Rajeev R Singh. Copyright Demotix (8/3/2013)

The dramatic arrest of India's deputy consul in New York Devyani Khobragade on charges of visa fraud for overstating the wages of her housekeeper have thrust the plight of India's domestic workers into the spotlight. 

Khobragade allegedly lied on documents for her maid, saying that she paid the woman 9.75 US dollars an hour when she actually received about 3 dollars, far below the minimum wage. The arrest has sparked a cooling of relations between India and the US over Khobragade's treatment, which included a strip and cavity searches, while in custody.

Housekeeper Sangeeta Richard claims Khobragade made her work long hours seven days a week, until she walked away one day. Indian officials and Khobragade say the maid tried to blackmail the diplomat. In the first days of the incident, mainstream media largely focused on Khobragade's ordeal, devoting very little coverage to Richard. 

Whatever the case, the story is a familiar one. India's more than nine million domestic workers, about 20 percent of the total workforce, are an indispensable workforce vital to the country's development, but they are often deprived of many rights. Fixed minimum wage, pay for additional hours worked, maternity leave, medical care and other such basic benefits remain illusive to them in the absence of a national policy. They are vulnerable to abuse and poverty. The nature of their work, informal employee-employer relationship, and the workplace being the private household, excludes their coverage from the existing labour laws in place for workers of other industry.

In 2012, a Draft National Policy for Domestic Workers was prepared by the Labor Ministry, giving domestic workers the right to minimum wage, paid leave and regulated working hours, to be sent to the Union Cabinet for approval. The proposal was originally recommended by the National Advisory Council (NAC) in April 2009, aimed at bringing domestic workers under the umbrella of existing labor laws. However, in May 2013 the Indian government deferred the proposal, making the fate of the policy uncertain.

Vidyut at AamJanata pointed out that the rights of domestic workers in India are being ignored from all sides:

Domestic work is probably the only “job sector” in India, where the industrial revolution is never going to make an inroad, because it takes more money added to your electricity bill to use a vacuum cleaner, washing machine or dishwasher daily than to employ a maid, who can do the job better. [..]

India has signed the [International Labour Organization's] convention for rights of domestic workers in 2011, but is yet to ratify it. Calls to fix a domestic worker’s minimum wage to Rs.30 per hour have fallen on deaf ears.

Editor for India Today Gayatri Jayaraman defended the domestic worker profession:

Kamayani Bali Mahabal at Kracktvist reported that last month representatives from 42 countries, including India, came together to create the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), a first-ever formal federation of domestic workers.

Shashank Sahay at Mowing the Law blog discussed some ways forward to ensure the rights of domestic workers, suggesting legislation that includes domestic workers in labour law.

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