Beyond International Domestic Workers’ Day

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She was only 12 when she first started working as a domestic worker. She was a child herself but had to take care of the employer’s children. When there were guests in the house, she was made to sleep in the drawing room, kitchen and even in the bathroom. She was given stale food to eat. With nowhere to go, she cried herself to sleep most nights.

This is a similar story for most of the domestic workers living in Harijan Basti in Gurgaon which accounts for more than 2500 of the estimated 4.2 million to 10 million domestic workers in India, most of whom are women.

14th June, 2018, two days prior to International Domestic Workers’ Day, seemed like just another day, until a domestic worker came stumbling out of one of the posh high rise buildings in the area at 6:30 pm.  She had been assaulted by her employer for not making the food of her choice. The worker had been slapped several times, dragged by her hair through the house and out of the door and had deep scratch marks on both sides of her neck. In the same house, she is often accused of black magic and hurled at abusive words in English, the meanings of which she knew only after she asked her son what they meant.

More than 250 domestic workers along with their husbands and family members were protesting in solidarity for more than 4 hours, but it is only when an NGO came out in their support that a written statement was finally accepted by the police. Not one employer from that building or other neighbouring buildings, or the Resident’s Welfare Association came out in support of the workers. Despite a 24 hour long protest, one written statement submitted on the evening of 14th June and another detailed complaint submitted on the morning of 15th June, an FIR wasn’t registered by the police, and the victim was taken under preventive custody u/sec 107/151.

The words of a worker at the protest that day continue to haunt. She said, “When there is a complaint against one of us, police are so quick to come and arrest us. There is never any doubt in their minds that we are guilty. The law is only for those who have money”.

Hidden away in invisible workplaces sexual harassment including rape, physical assault, abuse, or the threat of it are only some of the many challenges that a domestic worker has to face in her daily life. The fear of losing her job forces her into submissive silence and to face further abuse, intimidation and exploitation.

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This incident only once again highlighted the inherent discriminatory practices and prejudices that are an everyday reality of a domestic worker. The division of power, hierarchy and control is so deep seated that this might be the only other time that the workers have attempted to fight for justice in recent times in Gurgaon.

The incidents of the 14th and the manner in which it was handled can be seen as a direct violation of a woman’s fundamental right to equality under Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution which provide for equality before law, prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and protection of life and personal liberty.

In India, effective laws and policies to protect these workers have been elusive. 1 While legislations such as the Unorganized Social Security Act, 2008, Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and Minimum Wages Schedules notified by various states refer to domestic workers, there is still a crucial need for a uniformly applicable national legislation that guarantees fair terms of employment and decent working conditions for all the domestic workers in India.2 The general apathy and lack of political will towards the same is further illustrated when we do not see India in the list of countries that have ratified the 2011 ILO Domestic Workers Convention (189). India has also been unsuccessful in approving the two pending draft bills brought out in 2008 by the National Commission for Women and the National Campaign Committee of Unorganised Sector Workers also in 2008. This lack of regulation has led to countless violations of the rights of domestic workers. A report released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in February 2014, found that, in India’s 28 states and 7 union territories, there were 3,564 cases of alleged violence against domestic workers reported in 2012, up slightly from 3,517 in 2011 and 3,422 in 2010.3

Martha Farrell Foundation supports programmes that endeavour to bring dignity to the work of domestic workers.

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