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India's Invisible Domestic Workers: Unregulated, Unrecognised, and Deprived of Social Security

In the bustling cities and quiet corners of India, an invisible workforce exists - the domestic workers who tirelessly toil behind closed doors, cleaning, cooking, and caring for households. Despite being an integral part of society, these workers remain largely unregulated, unrecognised, and deprived of essential social security benefits, Rageshree Sengupta writes for The Probe.

By Rageshree Sengupta
New Update

Domestic workers in India
Domestic workers in Delhi NCR region | Photo courtesy: The Probe team

Meena (name changed) resides in Kusumpur Pahari and works in the Lajpat Nagar area of Delhi. Her job involves working in three houses, earning approximately 7000 rupees per month. However, she mentions that her salary does not cover her travel expenses from Kusumpur Pahari to Lajpat Nagar. She doesn’t get to take leaves without her salary being deducted, and her wages are insufficient to cover household expenses, including her children’s schooling. Her husband tends to spend what she earns on alcohol, further straining the family’s finances. 

"Most domestic workers I know are also victims of domestic abuse. No matter how much we earn, the money is never enough. We have numerous problems but no solutions," states Meena.

Christin Mary, National Coordinator of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement speaks to The Probe’s Rageshree Sengupta

Meena's voice echoes the sentiment of countless domestic workers across India, whose struggles go far beyond their meagre earnings. As an invisible workforce, they silently endure multiple challenges, often without recourse for relief. The absence of proper regulations and formal recognition leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Despite being the backbone of many households, their status as unskilled labourers often lead to discrimination and a lack of respect for their dignity and rights. The work they perform, though essential, remains undervalued and overlooked.

According to Christin Mary, the National Coordinator of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, the government lacks statistics and data on this workforce, because of which the workers never get their dues or have access to rights. “There are three types of domestic workers: part-time domestic workers, full-time domestic workers, and live-in domestic workers. The problem is that our country lacks specific statistics regarding domestic workers, as they are not categorised separately in the national survey conducted by the government. Consequently, we do not possess accurate figures. Quantifying the number of domestic workers is crucial. We only have sporadic surveys available that have quantified the number of domestic workers to about 4.2 million in India. But if the government does not have the statistics, then where is the question of providing them with their rights?” asks Christin.

Currently, the domestic workers in the country are not covered under a strong regulation. The Indian government introduced the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act to provide social security benefits and welfare measures to workers in the unorganised sector. The UWSSA was enacted to address the challenges faced by millions of workers in India's informal economy but the regulation has failed to provide domestic workers social security benefits. 

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The UWSSA, while a step in the right direction, has fallen short of its promise to safeguard the interests and well-being of domestic workers. Due to the unique nature of their work, often carried out within the confines of private households, domestic workers have faced challenges in gaining formal recognition and protection as employees. Without the safety net of social security, domestic workers find themselves trapped in a cycle of uncertainty and instability. Many face exploitative working conditions, insufficient wages, and a lack of access to basic labour rights. 

“A majority of the workers in India are employed in the informal sector. This informal sector lacks regular employer-employee relationships, and the workers do not receive social security benefits. Providing social security to individuals working in different places under various employers, like pension, requires the involvement of a third agency. There are only two laws that currently cover domestic workers. One is the UWSSA, and the other is the sexual harassment at the workplace law, which also includes coverage for domestic workers. However, this coverage is insufficient to provide them with adequate social security benefits,” states Lawyer and activist Subhash Bhatnagar.


Neetu has been working as a domestic worker for the past 14 years in Kusumpur Pahari | Photo courtesy: The Probe 

For the past 14 years, Neetu has worked in hostels, residential houses, and apartments. Her tasks included sweeping, mopping, dishwashing, and laundry; she works two shifts daily. Despite her efforts in four different homes, she only earns about 6000 rupees a month. However, Neetu is currently unemployed and has lost all her homes. Now, she is actively seeking employment. “I don’t have any money left as I am not working anymore. I have registered on various websites for domestic work and am keeping my fingers crossed,” says Neetu.

Domestic workers, Christin says, constitute a floating population, often moving between households to find work. One significant aspect of the domestic workforce is its overwhelming female representation, making it a crucial sector for women’s economic participation in the country. 

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“Since domestic tasks are carried out within the confines of private households, they are not considered traditional workplaces. As a result, domestic workers are not officially recognised as employees and are often categorised as unskilled labour. This lack of formal recognition leaves domestic workers without the protection and benefits accorded to other workers under the labour laws. Because of this, they face various forms of discrimination in terms of wages and working conditions,” rues Christin. 

Suman Devi | Domestic worker
Suman Devi works as a domestic worker in JJ Colony and has been struggling to make ends meet | Photo courtesy: The Probe team

“I work in two shifts, both morning and evening, covering around three houses that I visit twice daily. On an average, I put in about 6 to 8 hours of work everyday, yet my salary is barely around 6000 rupees. Unfortunately, as domestic workers, we do not receive any government assistance, and our problems remain unresolved. Illiteracy further increases our challenges, making it difficult for us to register for various government welfare schemes,” says Suman Devi, a 31-year-old who has been working in JJ Colony for the past six years. 

Each month is a constant battle for Suman as she tirelessly attempts to make ends meet. One of the obstacles she faced was obtaining a ration card. In her pursuit of obtaining one, she says she had to pay a bribe of 2000 rupees to the ration shop dealer. “However, even after I made the payment, I have not been given the ration card,” laments Suman.

According to Christin, one of the major issues faced by the workers is the lack of entitlement to social security schemes. Only 14 states in India have fixed minimum wages for domestic workers, leaving many without the assurance of fair compensation for their labour, says Christin.

Manju Devi | Domestic worker

Manju Devi has been working in Sector 17 A Noida for over 20 years as a domestic worker | Photo courtesy: The Probe team

“What is a major problem is that there is no national regulation specifically dedicated to domestic work. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, adopted in 2011, aimed to establish global standards for protecting domestic workers’ rights. However, it has not been ratified by the Indian government, leaving domestic workers without the comprehensive legal framework they deserve. The states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have taken steps in the right direction by establishing welfare boards for domestic workers. These boards serve as registration platforms for domestic workers and provide access to certain social security schemes. However, this progress is limited to a few states, and there is a significant gap in implementing such welfare boards across the country,” explains Christin. 

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Deepali Haider is employed as a househelp, serving in multiple households within Sector 18, Noida. She has been diligently working for the past 22 years, yet her earnings barely amount to a meagre 7000 rupees. She is granted only two weekly offs a month. 

In a similar plight, Manju Devi, another domestic worker, carries out her duties in Sector 17 A Block of Noida. At the age of 55, she has devoted over 20 years of her life to household work. However, her monthly earnings amount to a mere 2500 rupees, a sum insufficient to meet even basic necessities. She says she cannot pay her house rent or even refill her LPG cylinder.

Christin asserts that there is a pressing need to designate private homes as legitimate workplaces, a crucial step towards officially recognising domestic workers as formal employees. All states must establish and enforce fixed minimum wages for domestic workers to pay them fairly for their services. Domestic workers should be provided with social security benefits, and the government must conduct awareness programmes to educate domestic workers about their rights and entitlements. There must be a transparent and easily accessible complaint redressal mechanism to address grievances related to wage disputes, harassment, or any other labour-related issues the domestic workers may pace, notes Christin.

“By doing this, employers can be held accountable for any exploitation or mistreatment of domestic workers. For those states that have not yet established a minimum wage, we are calling for swift action to implement such policies. Similarly, in states where minimum wages have already been set, there should be a strong push to ensure that the fixed wages are sufficient and just, commensurate with the invaluable services provided by domestic workers. In addition to fair wages, Provident Fund (PF) and Employee State Insurance (ESI) benefits for the domestic workforce must be provided. The government is making efforts to draft policies. But our demand is to enact legislation as the states are not obliged to implement the policies,” affirms Christin.

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India needs a strong law to protect the rights of domestic workers, as the lack of a unified national regulation has left them vulnerable and unprotected. The absence of a national legislation has resulted in significant disparities in the treatment and welfare of domestic workers across different states. 

Domestic workers are the backbone of India's informal economy, play an essential role in the country's socioeconomic fabric, and contribute to the functioning of households and urban life. Yet their voices often remain unheard, and their labour and sacrifices go unnoticed, hidden within the confines of private households. 

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