The Indian media is abuzz with the Devyani Khobragade controversy these days – she’s the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York, who was arrested recently by US authorities. One of the issues it raises is the rights of domestic workers, since one of the things she is charged with is having paid her Indian domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard, far below US minimum wage.
And as usual, we’re seeing domestic work referred to as domestic “help”. Today’s front page in The Hindu (Bangalore edition) used the phrase domestic worker once, domestic employee once, and domestic help three times.
It’s not help. It’s work.
About a year ago, I attended a panel discussion in which one of the participants was Donna Fernandes, founder of the women’s rights organisation Vimochana. One of the things she had been campaigning for was domestic workers’ rights, and she made a point which stuck with me: she said it was a constant battle to get lawmakers and powers-that-be to see domestic work as work and to make them drop the conceptualisation of it as “help” or “assistance”. She said that the reason is patriarchal: domestic work is seen as something that is a woman’s “duty”, something that she does for free over and on top of any work she does outside the home. The wife is simply expected to do it; and so the domestic worker’s work is devalued too, it’s seen as simply helping along the house owner’s wifely duties.
The consequences of this are truly horrible. Here’s a sample:
Said Premamma (45), who has been working as a domestic help for 10 years: “Over the years we have learnt to ask for a salary dependant on how big the house is or the amount of work we do. While people from other professions are paid for the number of hours they put in or the quantum of work they do, we still have not evolved a mechanism to fix salaries.” Another domestic worker, Sarojamma (30) who lives in Kamakshipalya, said her repeated requests for a salary hike had been rebuffed. “I have been working in one house for nine years. My initial salary was Rs. 200, which is now Rs. 800. Initially I would only wash clothes. Now they make me clean the house and utensils as well.”
The world over, around 15 million children work as paid or unpaid domestic workers, of which at least 10.5 million are below the legal minimum age, according to an International Labour Organization (ILO) report titled Ending Child Labour in Domestic Work, released on the occasion of World Day Against Child Labour. These children work under conditions either hazardous or “tantamount to slavery” says the report. Not surprisingly, in these slavery-like conditions where physical, mental and sexual abuse is rampant — the report establishes through individual case studies from across the world — girls far outnumber boys. In fact, 71.3 per cent of children employed between the ages of five and 17 in domestic work are girls (2008 statistics).
In 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention. India supports the Convention but is yet to ratify it. One big reason for the absence of a targeted law, say activists, is that the law-makers — the babus in Delhi and elsewhere — are themselves employers and a law protecting the rights of domestic workers could be antagonistic to their interests.Belonging to the unorganised sector means that in case of a dispute with the employer, the worker cannot go to a labour court, as she is not technically recognised as a ‘worker’. “All laws since Independence are formulated for the organised sector, which is hardly 5 per cent in this country,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirmala Niketan, which organises domestic workers.
I didn’t know that last bit – that the ILO had a Domestic Workers Convention and that India had not ratified it. India is by no means alone in that: there are many countries which haven’t ratified it, including the US and the UK. In fact, only ten countries have ratified this convention.
We’re putting together a short online survey, titled How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? As the title suggests, the aim is to get a sense of how much Indians – Nirmukta members in particular – pay their domestic workers. I’m guessing that as we fill up the survey, we’ll suffer the dawning realisation: that isn’t enough. Watch this space, we’ll publicise the survey once it’s ready.