The struggle to introduce labour standards in paid domestic work was inaugurated by the International Labour Organisation in 1965. Since then, thousands upon thousands of domestic workers, especially women, have suffered injustice, exploitation, oppression and violence — sometimes fatal — before the ILO convention on and recommendations for decent work for domestic workers were signed by a large number of countries, including India, in June this year. It is now up to the member countries to implement the recommendations for minimum wages, decent work conditions, social security and protection from violence within the prescribed time frame. Some parts of India are already clued in. A number of states, although not West Bengal, do give minimum wages. Now a campaign for domestic workers is being launched in India as part of the international movement.
While all this is excellent, and a harbinger of hope, there are some hard facts to be faced in India. The vast sector of unorganized labour here has many tiers, and women domestic workers can belong to any one of them, or even to different tiers at different points of time. For example, policymakers will need to focus on monitoring and regulating placement agencies, not only to stop child labour and trafficking, but also for the purpose of registering domestic workers, so that they can become beneficiaries of social security schemes. But not all domestic workers pass through agencies. So other institutions and officials would have to be identified to register them. Unless regulations for employers — such as no sacking without notice — are already in place, domestic workers running around to get registered may simply lose their jobs. Then again, medical insurance will be given to domestic workers below the poverty line. But numbers of these women do not have BPL cards: their men either support the wrong political party or are too lazy to apply for one. The difficulties are numerous, even without counting middle-class resistance. Indian policymakers need to think out of the box to make the new policies both comprehensive and practical. And then, maybe, regulations will start changing mindsets.
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