With no laws to protect them, India's maids are "invisible", exploited and abused, says ILO

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 20 February 2014 04:52 GMT

In a 2007 file photo, Sheema Mandal (C), a 12-year-old house servant, attends a class at a school for child labourers in the north-eastern Indian city of Siliguri. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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With more wealth and working women, the demand for household help has surged, but the work is informal and unprotected - leaving maids and nannies vulnerable to exploitation and abuse

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of maids working in middle class Indian homes are part of up an informal and "invisible" workforce where they are abused and exploited due to a lack of legislation to protect them, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday.

Economic reforms that began in the early 1990s have transformed the lifestyles of many Indian families, and as people get wealthier and more women go to work, there has been a voracious demand for domestic workers in urban households.

The number of maids has surged by close to 70 percent from 2001 to 2010, says the ILO, adding that there are now an estimated 10 million maids and nannies in the country.

"They are such a big informal sector in India, but they are invisible and unprotected," Tine Staermose, the ILO's director for South Asia, told a news conference.

"Social justice is about basic fundamental rights of all workers. We need to turn around the mindset and look at domestic workers as human beings with dignity, with a life like our own, with the same problems and challenges."

Activists and trade unionists say despite the surge in women migrating from impoverished villages in states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to take up jobs in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, there are few laws in place recognising their rights.

Unlike other workers, maid and nannies often do not have mutually agreed contracts which provide a minimum wage, working hours or holidays. They are also deprived of social benefits such as access to healthcare and pensions.

The lack of legislation and regulation of the domestic labour sector has led to exploitation, not just by employers but also by traffickers working for placement agencies that have mushroomed to service the demand for household help.

The media is full of reports of minors and women lured from their villages by traffickers who promise of a good life as maids in cities. However, in the urban homes where they are taken to work, they often face mental, physical and sexual abuse.

In November last year, an Indian parliamentarian and his wife were arrested after their 35-year-old maid was found dead in their home in the capital. Police said the MP and his wife beat and tortured the maid with sticks, iron rods, an iron and the horns of a dead animal.

In October, an air hostess was arrested in Delhi after she was found to be employing a 12-year-old girl as a maid, whom she beat with a belt, starved and locked up.

The Indian government in 2009 drafted a National Policy on Domestic Workers, which spells out minimum wages, working hours and conditions, social security protection and the right to form trade unions and develop their skills. But the policy has still not been approved by the Indian cabinet.

ILO's Staermose said the draft policy would greatly help to address the plight of millions of maids in the country.

"The National Policy is a low-hanging fruit because it has been through a consultative process and it is ready to be passed," Staermose said.

"Once it gets passed, the invisible workforce will become visible. They will have an identity as workers and that means 10 million workers will move into the formal sector."

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