COVID fiasco turns spotlight on legislation to protect domestic workers

A recent survey reveals that about 85 per cent of workers had not received salaries during lockdown

In Chennai, about 2,500 domestic workers have reported to have not received pay during the lockdown. Photo: Wikimedia

Selvi, a single mother in her 40s, used to earn ₹8,000 a month doing domestic work in three houses in Chennai. A mother of two, she used to travel on train from Urappakam, which is around 25 km far from the city. Since train services came to a halt due to the lockdown, she could not go to work. Despite Selvi requesting her employers to pay her at least for March and April, they refused. Now, she has gone broke.

The plight of domestic workers amid the lockdown has shown that there was an urgent need for legislation to protect their rights and dignity.

A few days before the lockdown was imposed in India to contain the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens not to cut the salary of domestic workers, who were unable to come for work. However, the appeal has remained unheeded three months after the imposition of the lockdown.

Survival at stake

The number of domestic workers in the country varies from 4.75 million (NSS data, 2005) to 6.4 million (Census data, 2011). Some reports say that the number of domestic workers may be up to 90 million in India.

A survey by the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council (DWSSC) revealed that about 85 per cent of workers had not received salaries during the lockdown. The survey covered respondents from eight states—Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.

About 23.5 per cent of these workers have migrated to their hometowns during the period and around 38 per cent of them are facing issues with the arranging of food and at least 30 per cent of them said they didn’t have the money to survive the lockdown.

In Chennai, about 2,500 domestic workers have reported to have not received pay during the lockdown. “We are yet to receive the whole list of domestic workers, who have not received pay in these months from across the city. We assume that the full list will run into lakhs,” said Sister Valarmathi, state coordinator, National Domestic Workers Movement.

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Geeta R, advisor, Unorganised Workers Federation, said that putting on hold the payment of rent, as advised by government, didn’t work. “The deferring of the rent means little as it has to be paid by them (unorganised workers) on a later date. We have sought (from the government) ₹10,000 each, including ₹5,000, which is the minimum rent in a city like Chennai.”

She added that the providing of ration supplies alone would not help the workers, as they need to supplement it with vegetables and condiments. “The government has assured them a sum of ₹1,000 and that is yet to reach many,” she said.

Geetha said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted how vulnerable the workers were. She also pointed out that the package unveiled by the government had little to offer them, even as they contribute a lot to the GDP and make for a major portion of the workforce in the country.

Time for legislation

For a decade now, there has also been a growing chorus for the ratification of the ILO Convention 189 or the Convention on Domestic Workers that set labour standards for the group of workers.

The National Platform for Domestic Workers drafted the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill, 2017, that sought registration of employers to hold them accountable for workers, besides the issuance of ID cards, maintenance and digitization of records.

The Bill also sought the establishment of a central advisory committee and social security boards, while it also discussed the establishment of a fund, duties of employers, minimum wages and leaves. “Even after the Bill, several members have come up with their own bills, but nothing has materialized as yet,” said Nalini Nayak, convenor of the National Platform For Domestic Workers.

With the workers being seen as carriers of infection, the government has to step in immediately with relief for the community, she added.

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In a memorandum to the Prime Minister, the association has yet again stressed the need for a comprehensive legislation. “We have also sought a mechanism in place to register domestic workers and employers, regulate domestic work, enforce minimum wages and ensure social security for all domestic workers,” she said.

The others measures include the immediate set up of grievance redressal mechanisms through the labour departments with the support of local self-governments, air public advertisements and notification to spread awareness about the plight of this sector, their right to work and not to see domestic workers as the carries of infection, and to provide immediate financial supports to domestic workers who are not allowed to work.

Geetha said one per cent of the house tax being paid to the government had to be allotted to the Domestic Welfare Board. “This could cater to the social security measures—be it COVID-19 relief, medical expenses or pension,” she said, adding that a Central Act would ensure that migrant workers’ rights were protected.

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