The lockdown has exposed the vulnerability of domestic help across India. According to a conservative estimate, there are more than 50 lakh such workers, with over 80% of them being women. The virus threat and lockdown clauses have stopped them from coming to work in most houses from March 24. There is no data on how many employers have paid them during these idle months and there is no way one can find out.It will not be wrong to say that domestic help contribute significantly to the nation’s economic development. Many families, especially double-income ones, are excessively dependent on this workforce for cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the elderly and children.
Most of them are perennially in debt as they borrow money from households and in a sense become bonded labourers. In 2010, the National Commission for Women drafted the Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act to shield domestic help against low wages, long work hours and abuse. But it has been gathering dust. In 2011, the ILO adopted the Convention 189 to ensure dignity and legal protection for the workforce apart from health insurance, minimum wages and an umbrella organisation to protect their rights. India voted in favour of the convention, but has not yet ratified it. Then, the government included domestic workers in the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, a health insurance scheme. But the Rs 30,000-cover was only for registered domestic workers. The cumbersome process around registration has discouraged most of them from applying for this scheme.
While domestic workers do come under the ambit of laws such as the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, they have gaps and cannot address all their issues. A few states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Bihar have fixed minimum wages, but the registration process is fuzzy. It is time lawmakers go beyond ruminating over the proposed draft Bills and come up with a comprehensive legislation to offer this most vulnerable sector of the workforce dignity and legal protection.