On Friday, June 22, 2018, Martha Farrell Foundation in collaboration with PRIA, Apne Aap Women Worldwide and Oxford Stores organized a panel discussion on “Protecting and Promoting the Rights of Domestic Workers” at Oxford Bookstores, Connaught Place, New Delhi. The three panelists, Ms. Khadija, a domestic worker and leader of Ekta Group in Gurgaon, Mr. Subhash Bhatnagar, Convener, National Domestic Workers’ Forum and Mr. Alok Kumar, trade unionist and independent researcher, conversed with Ms. Nandita Pradhan Bhatt, the moderator of the discussion on how domestic workers can be collectivized to lobby and advocate with the government for a comprehensive legislation to protect their rights.
Ms. Khadija, drawing from her own struggle as a domestic worker said that the life of a domestic worker is fraught with numerous difficulties. While their wages are deplorably low and they hardly have any job security, they also face caste, class and gender-based discrimination at their workplaces.
Trade Unionist Mr. Alok Kumar, who has been closely working with Gharelu Kaamgaar Sangathan said that it is essential that domestic workers collectivize and advocate for their own rights, but the path to their collectivization is not that easy. The fragmented and the scattered nature of the domestic workers is the biggest impediment in their collectivization. They have different workplaces and multiple employers. They also receive different remunerations and perform different types of tasks. Since there is no shared workplace or a readily identifiable zone of employment, paid domestic workers can only be approached at the sites of their residences. Ms. Khadija, while speaking about her own experience of collectivizing domestic workers brought to attention, that even if domestic workers are collectivized at their residences, the window is very small. They work for nearly 7-8 hours a day and when they come back, they also have other household responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and washing. It becomes very difficult for them to spare time for collectivization activities and they also lose interest very soon.
Mr. Subhash Bhatnagar who has been actively pushing for a comprehensive legislation for domestic workers pointed towards the need to educate and sensitize employers. While the government has been very apathetic towards the plight of domestic workers, it is the employers who perpetuate discrimination against them on an everyday basis. Therefore, their sensitization will be the first step towards enabling a safe and dignified workplace for domestic workers and will also help in building up advocacy around necessary legislative action.
Ms. Nandita Pradhan Bhatt also brought to attention the sexual harassment of domestic workers at their workplaces. Despite the enactment of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, the constitution of Local Committees (LCs) for the prevention and redressal of sexual harassment of informal workers is in a deplorable state. Domestic workers continue to tolerate in silence. They face precarious financial conditions, have very low job security and lack the necessary social and political support in the cities that they have migrated to. In face of such vulnerability, they are scared to speak against sexual harassment at workplace and also skeptical about admitting it if they have faced it.
The panel discussion concluded with a call for action to build a national level coalition of domestic workers, unions and civil society organization, which will collectively advocate for the enactment of National Policy for Domestic Workers. This policy, which is currently under consideration of the government, will standardize the wages and working hours of domestic workers, provide them with social security, protect them from workplace harassment and include them in all the existing legislations for informal sector workers.