Ending the scourge of violence against domestic workers in India


As the world commemorates the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) demands an international Convention on gender-based violence in the workplace, recent events in India have brought the dangers faced by domestic workers into sharp focus.

Earlier this month, the death of 34-year-old Rakhi Bhadra from West Bengal sent shockwaves across India.

She worked as a maid for Dhananjay Singh, an MP with the Bahujan Samaj Party, and his wife Dr Jagriti Singh, a dentist at a government hospital in Delhi.

Rakhi came to the house through a placement agency and worked for ten months, apparently without ever receiving her salary.

On 2 November, 2013 she died from injuries inflicted by the Singhs.

The initial postmortem suggests that she was beaten to death but doctors also found visible burn marks and other injuries on her chest, stomach, arms and legs.

The Singh’s have both been arrested for the murder of Bhadra and the attempted murder of two other domestic workers in their care – one of whom was a 17-year-old boy, who was beaten repeatedly and forced to work without pay, and the other, 35-year-old Meena Sardar, who is currently undergoing treatment for burns caused by hot irons.

And in another twist to the tale, last week Dhananjay was also charged with the repeated rape of a government employee over the course of several years.


Unexceptional evil

But as horrific as the stories of Rakhi, Meena and Rampal are, they are sadly not exceptions in India.

A 15-year-old domestic maid rescued – beaten and semi-naked – from a South Delhi house on 30 September 2013, told police that she was assaulted with hot pans, chains and knives by her employer, as well as being forced to drink urine and sleep inside the toilet.

On 29 October 2013, a 13-year-old domestic help from Imphal, Manipur, was rescued by police and NGO workers from another house in South Delhi after two years of forced, unpaid labour. As well as being denied food and wages, she was also severely beaten.

But the abuse and poor treatment domestic workers endure belies the importance of their work.

As one bank employee horrified by the Singh revelations told Equal Times: “Can anyone of us imagine reaching the office on time or working peacefully if domestic workers were not there?” said Roopa Wasnik, herself the employer of a domestic helper.

“Without my maid, life would have been impossible for my family. She is the most integral part of our life.”

So if their work is so important, why are they often treated so badly?

“Violence against domestic workers is not uncommon,” says Renana Jhabvala, National Coordinator of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

“But now, it is slowly coming to the limelight.

“Workers are often tortured both verbally and physically. They are denied wages, food, clothes, rest or proper sleeping places. Live-in maids suffer the most. Rakhi Bhadra is one such unfortunate and extreme case.”

According to the most recent National Employment and Unemployment Survey, domestic workers constitute 2.7 per cent of total employed persons in India.

That amounts to more than 10 million domestic workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women.

But as in many societies, domestic work is not recognised as “real work” in India and those who do it are not protected by major labour laws.


C189 and the dignity of labour

There has been a real global momentum built around the 12 x 12 campaign and other initiatives to get the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Domestic Work (also known as C189) ratified, but India is yet to sign up to the convention or implement any laws to guarantee minimum wages and grant social security for domestic workers.

“There is no dignity of labour. Domestic work is considered menial and, therefore, workers who do it are considered to be of a lower class who can be ill-treated and tortured,” says AR Sindhu, the National Secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Union.

For her, the only solution is better labour laws and more social recognition for domestic workers.

“There should be more clarity on the definition of domestic labour. Domestic workers are one of the most socially-productive labour classes and the government should take a position in defining them and their wages. There is also a need to create greater social consciousness about domestic work, which will then reduce the antagonism against them,” she says.

For Geeta Menon of the Domestic Workers Rights Union, the most urgent requirement is relevant data.

“One kind of employment for domestic maids is through placement agencies and the other is through trafficking. Both are problematic. Identifying workers and registering them, both at the source as well as at their destination should be a priority. The government, along with all parties concerned, should take immediate action to address the issue.”

Recognising the critical importance of organising domestic workers, the ILO has been working with its tripartite partners in India — the trade unions, the employers’ organisations and the government via the Ministry of Labour and Employment – to encourage domestic workers to organise themselves into trade unions to improve their living and working conditions.

The government’s decision to extend the provisions of the National Health Insurance Programme to domestic workers may inspire more workers to get registered.

But the task of registering domestic workers and giving them visibility needs to be a national priority across the board as improved working conditions and pay in the biggest sector of female employment in India could help lift millions of domestic workers – and their families –out of poverty.