The Deplorable Plight of Domestic Help in India

In today’s fast-paced world where most families are double income families and are working for almost 8-10 hours a day, there’s hardly any time left to cook for the family, do household chores and sometimes, take care of their children even. These tasks are often left to women who are termed as domestic help. Domestic work is one of the oldest jobs in the world. Due to various reasons like lack of opportunities, poverty, disasters, etc., people migrate from villages to cities. These migrants are usually quite poor and disadvantaged and, due to lack of skills and training, get employed in unorganised sectors in towns, with mostly women being forced to work as domestic help. Some are employed to clean houses and do other household chores, some cook and some take up the jobs of nannies. Informalization of the workforce has become prominent in a developing country like India, and the domestic labour market is no exception. As per information provided by the National Domestic Workers Movement, the number of domestic workers in India ranges from official estimates of 4.2 million to unofficial estimates of more than 50 million. Girls and women make up a significant majority of domestic workers. It is highly demanding work; however, they are usually treated with little or no respect, both by who they work for and at their own homes. They don’t receive the recognition they deserve neither do they receive fair pay. These women work for extremely long hours in many houses, making the lives of others so much smoother, but still face problems that no one should face in this day and age. They deal with issues like bad working and living conditions, long working hours, absence of safety, financial problems, bad or inadequate facilities, and more often than not, violence at the hands of their abusive husbands.

One of the biggest problems domestic workers face is the lack of job security. At any point they can be removed from their jobs as there is no legal work contract. This poses a huge problem as this work is one of their only sources of income. Since many of these women come from impoverished families, they are forced to work menial jobs to provide whatever little they can for their families. As they are often illiterate, there are very few other options available to them. Many times, the money they earn is not enough to sustain their day to day expenditure which leads to borrowing. The contribution of domestic workers in the country’s economy is not assessed as they are not given the status of worker, especially in the unorganised sector. They do not have any specific pay scale and are not entitled to pay hikes or allowances like workers in other sectors. The wages given to them are much less than the minimum wages in the country. According to an article in the Times of India, an average maid is paid only Rs 3000-5000 per month. Lenders charge exorbitant rates of interest which is practically impossible to pay, hence sinking them further into debt, making their position even more desperate. As they have no concept of saving money, it is very hard for them to escape this debt trap. Many times, out of desperation, they succumb to stealing from their employers to pay back their debts, leading to further trouble.

Husbands of such women are violent, abusive and almost always inebriated. They refuse to work a steady job to provide for their families and demand that their wives, who work day and night to earn money, silently hand over their salaries. They use the money meant for household expenditures to buy spirits and alcohol to fuel their addiction. The women often receive rains of blows upon refusal to surrender the money. The injuries inflicted often go untreated and unpunished. Domestic help are also extremely vulnerable to physical harassment and abuse at their workplace and do not have the means or knowledge to take action against the wrongdoers.

What happens to the children of the women who take care of children of other families? While some of the more fortunate ones do get to go to school, many are forced to go to work with their parents. In many families, where there are both male and female offspring, the girl’s education is sacrificed and the boys are sent to school instead. Girls are taught to do chores and are sent to work in houses as soon as they are able. When it comes to the children who are too young for school, since their parents can’t afford day-care facilities, these kids often spend the entire day alone, barely knowing how to take care of themselves.

While the plight of domestic workers may seem quite grim, all is not lost. The Government of India had passed more than 40 Central Labour Legislations to protect the rights of domestic workers. Several states, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and Rajasthan, have fixed minimum wages for domestic workers in seven States in India. While the benefits of these legislations have mostly only reached the workers of the organised sector, increasing efforts are being made to improve the conditions of the unorganised sectors. In Kolkata, domestic helpers were granted a trade union certificate. There are many organisations, like the aforementioned National Domestic Workers Movement, that work to train and uplift the lives of these women and help them work better and earn more for themselves and their families. NGO’s around India are focussed on helping women who face physical abuse at the hands of their husbands and employers. Awareness is being spread, employers are becoming more sensitive and workers are now becoming more and more aware of their rights. So, at a slow but steady pace, the domestic workers seem to improve their working and living conditions.

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