Domestic discord
Amidst the brouhaha around the Delhi gang-rape case, concerns are raised whether legislation alone will ensure the safety and rights of domestic workers across the country
By Saher Baloch, New Delhi


Photo: Human Rights Watch

Sitting amidst friends and colleagues early on a Sunday morning, Phulkeriya Minz is busy making arrangements for the day. A domestic workersʼ meeting is expected to start any minute now.

Chota Nagpur Working Women Association (CNWWA), located in West Kidwayi Nagar, has been a placement agency for domestic workers in Delhi since 1982. This weekly meeting is a chance for the domestic workers to talk. Mostly, they talk about the problems they face and the treatment meted out to them by their employers.

“Think of it as a way of venting,” explains Minz. Most of these workers hail from Jharkhand. This is the only place where workers are allowed to fearlessly speak their mind.

Their conversations and complaints get documented, she adds.
With the death of the victim of the Delhi gang rape incident recently, the debate at the association has shifted more towards ensuring the physical safety of domestic workers. Even though a recent inclusion of domestic workers in a long awaited Sexual Harassment Bill was lauded in August 2012, many workers at CNWWA think it has nothing to do with them.

“Who cares for us exactly?” asked a middle aged woman, introducing herself as Shanti, (last name not given).

“What can a piece of paper guarantee? I know for a fact that I
have to take care of myself; no law can do that for me.”

Shantiʼs opinion is shared by most of her colleagues, who nod
in agreement. They mention a host of other abuses that are
not reported at all.

“You don’t need a law to make people behave or to feel for the other”

Just last week Minz went to Gurgaon to meet an employer of one of the women from CNWWA. The complaint was that the woman was asked to sleep under a staircase with even a blanket or a pillow. In another case, a worker reported that she was beaten by her employer in Ghaziabad after she used the common bathroom in the apartment. “You donʼt need a law to make people behave or to feel for the other (sic),” adds Minz angrily, while the chatter in the room fizzles out.

It is to avoid such incidents that CNWWA pre-arranges the terms and conditions of employment before placing a domestic worker.

Minz negotiates every detail, right from salary to the domestic workerʼs meals and sleeping arrangements. This is done in the presence of both employer and employee. For instance, the initial salary is fixed at Rs. 6,000 a month and above. There is a clause
specifying working hours, which is not supposed to be more than 8, and an added section about bedding. In another clause the employers are asked to give the employee a two hour break every day. Most of these clauses are accepted by the employers, Minz added.

However fiery and forthright these women are in their speech, they do not say much when it comes to sharing instances of sexual harassment at the workplace. Recently, a 13-year-old girl was
rescued from an apartment in Dwarka after her employers had
locked her in and gone on holiday. This is just one of the many cases that expose the vulnerability of the domestic workers to abuse and exploitation.

When asked whether or not workers report sexual or physical
abuse, Minz was quick to clarify, “Look, so far we havenʼt come across such incidents at all. Thatʼs the only reason we donʼt place younger women, only mature ones.”

This decision came after a recent incident, where one of the young
workers in Kidwayi Nagar quietly left her employment without citing the exact reason. One of her friends later reported that the girl was molested by her employerʼs husband. Though placement
agencies insist they are in constant touch with the women they contract out for employment, it remains unclear whether they can ensure their safety from within the confines of an employerʼs home.

Jaya Iyer, a social activist, believes that no amount of legislation
can bring security. However a legal framework is needed and is
important. “Legislation is not enough. Mindsets and cultures have to be changed and the perception of privacy or ʻghar ki baatʼ must be breached. Itʼs high time,” she says.

At the same time, she adds that efficacy of the law is impossible until a domestic worker reports abuse or poor treatment.

Big exodus to urban areas
With an estimated number of half a million domestic workers, Delhi has seen many phases of external and internal exodus. In the 70ʼs, men from Nepal would come in hordes to the city looking for menial jobs, mostly as guards and servants. The 80ʼs saw an influx from West Bengal, Orissa and Chattisgarh.

“From the 90ʼs and onwards, there has been an internal migration going on,” adds Iyer. Most workers were flocking in from Central India.

For the past one decade though, with natural disasters like the tsunami in 2004, and an overall unrest in some tribal areas, the city has seen an influx of migrants from Jharkhand and other connected areas.

“Legislation is not enough. Mindsets and cultures have to be changed and the perception of privacy , or ghar ki baat must be breached. It is high time”

With no knowledge of language and the life in cities, many women come to Delhi either to look for better employment to support their families or to support their own education. But somewhere in the middle they fall into the trap of people on the look out to earn
a quick buck.

Minzʼs CNWWA is among the 2300 placement agencies in the city out of which only 269 are properly registered. Most of these agencies are on a tricky platform to redress abuses, thus demonstrating a need for a national policy or guideline for the rights of workers.

With the ongoing debate on domestic workers rights, activists like
Iyer feel that it might take another decade to properly see the recently amended Sexual Harassment Bill through. The bill initially excluded domestic workers but after protests from civil rights activists, the domestic workersʼ rights were included in mid-2012.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Waorkplace Bill 2012 defines domestic worker as a woman employed to do household work in any household for remuneration whether in cash or through any agency on temporary, part time or full time basis but does not include any member of the family of the employer.
An earlier version of the draft left out domestic workers provision in 2010.
In 2012, it was unanimously passed in the parliament.
Fine of upto `50,000 will be charged in case of noncompliance of the law.
Unlike legislation in many other countries the bill does not provide protection to men.

Citing an example, she said that, the Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005 after being ʻdiscussedʼ for eight to 10 years. “The fact of the matter,” she adds, “is that the administration hasnʼt got its act together, even as abuse of workers increases. At the same time the laws canʼt work without the social support of people,” citing the example of the recent Delhi gang rape incident, in which people from all walks of life took to the streets in support of
the victim.

In the meantime, there are a lot of abuses taking place that go
unnoticed. Out of these cases only a select few come out in the open, depending on the extent of barbarity.

“It is more about social interven tion at every level. It needs to be about empowering workerʼs groups, validating intervention and for people like us to be more sensitive to such incidents,” Jaya adds.

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