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Editorial: The invisible contribution of domestic help
One of the biggest challenges that the pandemic threw up in India was how the unorganised sector was derailed when the virus struck. A casualty has been domestic help – maids, cooks, cleaners, and drivers – who form an integral part of almost all households.
These workers are intrinsically linked to our lives and many are considered extended family, yet their skills are unrecognised, and their personhood undefined. As per data from the Delhi Labour Organisation, there are over five crore domestic workers in India, and the majority of these are women.
Despite national guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) allowing them to resume work, most have been out of work for months now. The Ministry had clarified that barring containment zones where any public movement except for emergencies is prohibited, services of self-employed such as house help, car cleaners, housekeeping (electrical work, plumbing, carpentry) are permitted.
An official of the MHA had recently said the Centre had no qualms about services of domestic workers or any other provider. It was also mentioned the MHA had not vested any power in Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs) to decide on the lockdown. “That power is only vested with the Centre and the states,” the official had said. But several RWAs across cities, including those in orange and green zones, have barred their entry into gated communities owing to which their means of livelihood has been cut off.
In the case of Noida, the district administration had issued new guidelines, asking RWAs and residents’ bodies to come up with ideas to ensure only one domestic help works for one household. They also imposed a condition that the help only comes from a non-containment zone. Owing to fear of infection, many assumed the RWAs’ instructions are set in stone.
Tamil Nadu and Chennai, seem to have led by examples of positive reinforcement as earlier this month, the Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner G Prakash assured e-passes for domestic help. The State has also permitted domestic helpers, plumbers, and workers in red zones to avail of passes via Corporation Commissioners and District Collectors. While such reprieve may work for now, what is required in the long term for domestic help, is a recognition of their contribution as per Indian labour laws.
In June 2019, the Ministry of Labour and Employment released a document referred to as the Draft National Policy on Domestic Workers, which is under consideration. Its features include the right of domestic workers to minimum wages, formation of trade unions, access to social security, tribunals, and protection from abuse. The draft policy also considered establishment of a mechanism to regulate placement agencies and enhancing their professional skills. This year in January, a Supreme Court bench ordered the Ministry to develop a software to register unorganised workers following a petition that domestic workers have never availed of benefits under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008. In the backdrop of the pandemic, these labour law reforms must be expedited on a war footing so that those who help keep our homes in good stead are not rendered invisible again.