Rajni was only 15 years old, but as the eldest child in the family, she had developed a deep sense of responsibility towards her family, particularly two sisters and a brother. Like many other tribal families in her village in Jharkhand, Rajni’s family had been experiencing a lot of economic hardship. So when one of her friends who had migrated to Delhi and came to the village for a few days told Rajni that like her she too, she could earn Rs 1,500 per month as a domestic worker, it caught her attention.
When Rajni came to Delhi, her friend managed to find a job for her, but the monthly salary was only Rs 1,000. What is worse, after some time, the woman for whom Rajni worked started scolding and beating her at the slightest pretext. There was a risk of serious injury, particularly when she threw some object at Rajni. To fulfill her objective of helping her family, Rajni tolerated all this quietly. But one day, all limits were crossed when her employer branded Rajni with a hot iron. Rajni was now truly scared and felt she could not stay there any longer. For the first time, she related her woes to another woman in the neighbourhood. Fortunately, this woman was well connected with an organisation called ‘Nirmana’, which was trying to help unorganised workers in Delhi. They helped her to escape the beatings and torture.
A detailed interaction with several such women migrant domestic workers revealed that their problems have two aspects – some relating to employers and some relating to placement agencies. The first set of problems arise due to the unhelpful altitude of many (but not all) employer households, that try to take as much work from them as possible while providing the least facilities. As the girl from a distant village stays with them, she becomes entirely dependant on them and they use this opportunity to squeeze as much work out of her as possible. As many of these girls said, their work starts early in morning and continues late till night. There are no fixed working hours and they could be called upon anytime. Apart from normal work such as cooking, cleaning utensils and washing clothes, they are sometimes asked to do additional work such as cleaning a car. There is no rest for them. To add insult to injury, their work is very frequently criticised and they are blamed for the faults of others. Sometimes, they are abused, slapped or beaten in other ways. Even worse is the risk of sexual exploitation by male members in the family. In such cases, male members are generally never blamed and instead, the victim is criticised and stigmatised. Such situations can be extremely traumatic for these young girls.
The girls, who toil from morning to night, have high-energy requirements, but the food they generally get is not enough to satisfy their hunger, let alone meet the requirement of a balanced diet. It was a common complaint of most girls we spoke to that the amount of rice (their staple food) they get is less than their requirement. What is worse, sometimes left-over food or stale food is given to them, which they find very humiliating, particularly when they’ve cooked abundant fresh food for others. The left-over milk from a child’s bottle-feed may be used to make tea for the domestic worker. Sometimes, the girls are not provided with bare necessities like soap and oil. The clothes given to them are sometimes taken back when they leave. Sometimes, they are deprived of the use of even the family bathroom and asked to use a common bathroom in apartment blocks meant for drivers. One woman worker was asked to use a common bathroom that could not be bolted from inside.
Many of the girls do not get weekly leave. Some domestic workers are also deprived of their hard-earned money. Arbitrary deductions are made, particularly when a girl leaves a job; their earnings are often not deposited with placement agencies. The increasingly unscrupulous nature of many placement agencies constitutes another aspect of the injustice faced by these girls that deserves attention. One expects the agencies to act as a link between prospective employers and girls who want employment; they get a commission on being able to find employment for a girl. But this should be accompanied by some concern for the welfare of the girls and follow-up action to ensure that lonely girls from distant villages are not treated badly. This responsibility is entirely neglected by some placement agencies. In addition, when some girl’s earnings are deposited with them, they do not provide the full amount to her. When the predominant tendency of a placement agency is to earn some quick money, welfare aspects of a domestic worker are completely neglected.
All this is not to deny that some households go out of their way to provide conducive, helpful conditions for domestic workers and some placement agencies take an active interest in their welfare. But by and large, the overall situation for these girls from remote villages is a bleak one – they are exploited by all sides, frequently humiliated and are exposed to numerous risks. Being unaware of the ways of the city, they can be easily cheated and taken advantage of by unscrupulous persons.
Domestic workers are among the most neglected and exploited section of workers. The available National Sample Survey (NSS) data suggests about three-fourths of workers engaged in private households are women. In recent years, following a spike in the demand for domestic workers in big cities, incidents of trafficking have increased.
Now, after a long wait, there is some hope for domestic workers. In detailed consultations during the past year, several organisations working for domestic workers have come together to form National Platform for Domestic Workers (NPDW). The NPDW has submitted a petition signed by thousands of domestic workers to the petitions committee of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha for comprehensive all-India legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers.
This legislation, the petitions demand, should fix wages, regulate employment, conditions of work and provide social protection simultaneously. The Act should be implemented through a board, the composition of which must be tripartite in nature. It must have elected representatives of the workers, with proportionate representation for women workers. Such a board should be autonomous and there should be a mechanism for dispute and grievance redressal.
It should undertake the registration of workers and their social security contributions, regulation of conditions of work, social protection, registration of employers and collection of their contribution for social security, monitoring of payment of minimum wages. There should be a help line in the Board and also a complaints committee at all levels to handle sexual harassment complaints of domestic workers.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.