Reshmi (name changed), was just 12 years old when she left home in Jharkhand in 2000 with a man who promised her a job and a better life in Delhi. Her father was an alcoholic, her mother struggling to provide for Reshmi and her three younger siblings. So Reshmi left home, without informing her family. For 15 years she worked as a live-in domestic help at the home of a family in the national capital. But when she started missing home and began asking for permission to visit her family, she was turned out by her employers, without being paid a single rupee for the work that she had done for 15 years.
Stories like Reshmi’s are unfortunately so commonplace that they hardly ever attract attention. A United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) report published earlier this year quotes a National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) estimate that in 2011-12 there were 3.9 million domestic workers in the country, with women domestic workers constituting 2.6 million. Migrants accounted for the largest share of domestic workers.
Little Legal Backing
According to the UNRISD report, the move to mobilise domestic workers to stand up for their rights began in the 1980s and gained strength in the 1990s and 2000. In 2011 domestic workers across the world and organisations working for their rights clinched a major victory at the International Labour Conference when most member countries voted in favour of a Convention to uphold the rights of domestic workers. Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 detail how domestic workers need to be protected and awarded. Though India is a signatory of the Convention, it is yet to ratify it, says Thompson.
As the UNRISD report points out, in India, domestic workers are implicitly excluded even from the Minimum Wages Act 1948. Although the benefits of the Act can be extended to domestic workers through state legislations, there are very few states where notifications have included domestic workers. A few states, such as Maharashtra, have attempted to regulate domestic work through the setting up of welfare boards for domestic workers. But by and large, agencies working with domestic workers feel that people in positions of power are often biased against this marginalised class.
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Access the UNRISD Research Report "Locating the Processes of Policy Change in the Context of Anti-Rape and Domestic Worker Mobilisations in India