They are an indispensable part of our lives, yet are the most exploited lot. If they fail to turn up for a couple of days, chaos reigns in our homes. But, instead of gratitude, abuses and insults are heaped on their heads, not to talk of that extra lot of tasks, which they are expected to take in their stride.

Domestic workers ~ there’s a plethora of nomenclature for them, servants, help and maids to name a few ~ are part of that unorganised labour force that we choose to brush aside when we speak of rights. With none of the labour laws applicable to them, their wages are negotiated ~ often they do not even earn the minimum wages prescribed by government. They have no job assurance or social security. Despite forming an important part of our economy, little thought is given to their lives or problems the moment they step out of our houses.

“We don’t want to acknowledge that domestic work can also be dignified,” asserted Rajesh Tandon, president of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA). “I’m really concerned that as a society, in 70 years of Independence, we have not changed our mindset of dignity of work.”

A nationwide estimate of domestic workers, according to the National Sample Survey (NSS) (2011-12) puts their number at 41.3 lakh, of which 68 per are women. There are three categories of domestic workers, informed Tandon. The first is employed 24×7 in a house. The second lot works in high security, tightly regulated housing complexes and the third is part-time labour that lives in slums or colonies and work in three to five houses.

Part of economy

In an extensive research in this area, one of PRIA’s reports suggests that the contribution of the informal settlement dwellers to urban GDP is 7.53 per cent; if calculated further it is almost 4.5 per cent of the country’s GDP. The study, the largest in India on this particular issue, was conducted in 50 major cities across the country. About 5,353 households and 24,445 individuals were covered in the study.

The recent incident of the exploitation of a domestic worker at Mahagun Moderne, a housing society in Noida, once again brings the focus back to the situation of the workers in the informal sector in urban areas. “Most employers cut our wages if we take more than two days’ leave in a month,” said Babita, who works part-time in a housing society in Gurgaon. “I cannot afford to fall ill. Nor can I stay back and care for my children if they fall ill.”

The other issue is that there is no standardisation or certification of skills. Rajesh Tandon notes that most domestic workers learn on the job but their improved skills do not get any credit. If they lose their job in one household and move to another, their training and improved skills are not recognised. Taking cognizance of this, PRIA started a project six months back to train domestic workers and certify them.

“Resident Welfare Associations should take the responsibility to look after the interests of this labour force,” said Tandon. “There should be a harassment forum and standardisation of wages, and also a leave system.”

A ray of hope for these workers is the draft National Policy for Domestic Workers, which is currently pending before the Union Cabinet. However, Tandon said, “The norms are there but there is no mechanism to check them. But the main thing is to recognise service. That concept is not there.”