News | Gender Relations - Labour / Unions - South Asia - Domestic Work The Persistent Precarity of Domestic Workers in South Asia

Moving beyond Convention 189 and towards municipalization



Maya John,

After the euphoric moment of ILO deliberations that culminated in Convention No. 189 of 2011 concerning “decent work” for domestic workers, the feminization of paid domestic work, the concentration of the most vulnerable sections of women in such work, and its undervaluation in terms of unpaid overtime, low stagnant wages, etc. are realities that continue to prevail. Domestic work in South Asian countries remains one of the largest industries to employ women, catering not only to a large domestic market but also to overseas markets in wealthier regions of the world. Convention 189 speaks of minimum standards of work, effective complaint mechanisms and compliance with legislation, labour inspection, etc. Ironically, however, such rights of domestic workers have been envisaged in the paradoxical context of steady withdrawal of the state from regulation of employer–employee work relations, including those of the formal sector.

Maya John is a labour historian at the University of Delhi and Convenor of the Gharelu Kamgar Union (Domestic Workers’ Union).

The current conditions warrant close scrutiny of the embeddedness of the problems characterizing this work and industry, in particular, the highly privatized employer–employee relations, which can be counteracted by measures like municipalization of domestic work. Indeed, greater socialization and formalization of domestic work is possible only through a paradigm that positions the state firmly in this domain of work relations, thereby fundamentally transforming the work process.

Trends in South Asia

In Western countries, excluding very wealthy households, middle-class homes can be seen fulfilling demands of housework through regular utilization of numerous household appliances readily available in the consumer market. Contrastingly, in South Asian countries, despite the fact that a sizeable section of middle and upper-class families can afford such appliances, a preference remains for cheaply available domestic workers on whom the bulk of housework is readily transferred.

Apart from the ready supply of cheap labour for paid domestic work, and the appended calculation that employing such labour is more cost effective than spending on household appliances and higher electricity bills, the stigma attached to the manual nature of housework further explains the widespread use of paid domestic services by a vast majority of urban-based households. Moreover, in recent decades, an entire second and third generation has emerged within middle-class families that has increasingly taken up salaried work, thereby creating further scope for middle-class women to sub-let the drudgery of housework onto a domestic worker. Evidently, with the growth in “double income-earning” couples, the dependency on paid domestic “help” is on the rise.

There are two broad patterns of hiring of domestic workers in South Asia; one in which well-to-do households hire full-time domestic workers (in some instances, even working-class children) who often reside within the employer’s home, and the other in which such households hire a domestic worker who generally comes in once or twice in the day to attend to the family’s washing, cleaning, and cooking. Usually, the hiring of a worker on full- or part-time basis is through informal channels like tapping personal contacts, although hiring through placement/recruitment agencies is also a rising trend. Apart from a slew of placement agencies—many of which use fraudulent means and have a questionable record—the market in South Asia has also seen an additional pattern of recruitment through housekeeping companies that either provide domestic workers to service common areas in residential complexes, or to individual households.

While a section of domestic workers in South Asia’s metropolises comes from the ranks of the local labouring poor, a vast section is migrant labour from the rural interiors. Women from economically vulnerable and socially stigmatized social groups also migrate overseas from South Asian countries to take up employment as domestic workers in other parts of the world: namely, the Middle East, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and even some pockets in the US, Canada, and Europe. In fact, scores of impoverished women are working to fill a global care deficit at a significant cost of their own well-being, livelihoods, and families.

Persistent Precarity despite Convention 189

The state persistently refuses to regulate this large industry, and it is no coincidence that none of the South Asian countries—India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, or the Maldives—have ratified the ILO Convention 189. Some of these countries have sought to show that while their governments have not ratified Convention 189, there have been concerted efforts to include domestic workers within the ambit of national legislation. However, proactive state intervention depends, among many other things, on expansive data collection on migrant informal labour, considering that a large component of domestic workers in cities are increasingly migrants, and on enhancing the labour department’s outreach and powers—all of which mandate greater state expenditure. In India, the Union Ministry of Labour recently announced an ambitious project of data collection on migrant workers and domestic workers, with surveys to begin by March 2021 and final reports slated for October 2021. The Labour Bureau states that the data will help policymakers to design schemes, initiatives, and interventions. However, such pronouncements are contradicted by the new budget allocations for 2021, wherein the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation saw a significant reduction in state funding.

Unsurprisingly, the governments of South Asian countries have little reliable and up-to-date information on domestic workers. In many respects, the vastly varying data on domestic workers are a reflection of deep-seated problems like the general non-recognition of this workforce by state agencies in addition to the practical difficulties of documenting such workers—especially full-time live-in workers, given that private residential complexes constitute a black hole of employer domination. This in turn affects policy decisions and the general accessibility to whatever piecemeal welfare schemes exist for such workers. In a context where the public authority itself is in the dark about the numerical strength of this workforce, the plight and entrenched vulnerability of domestic workers easily go unnoticed. Indeed, it is not surprising that unaccounted for domestic workers keep falling prey to human trafficking, rape, and murder, with little signalling effect on public authority and society at large.

In general, employer–employee relations of the informal sector are highly exploitative, but the relationship between employers and domestic workers are even more oppressive given the private nature of work and peculiarities of the workplace. Importantly, the state does not consider this work relation as a contractual relationship forged in a public domain of work. The predominantly personal, familial nature of the workplace is used as the ideological justification for non-regulation by public authority (the state). This paid work relation is considered a private matter between two parties, which sidelines the concrete civic principles of contract informing this work relation and allows the state to deny legal subjecthood to domestic workers. This is precisely why domestic workers in South Asian countries are not identified as “workers”, and do not figure in several important labour laws on trade unions, industrial disputes, payment of wages, provision of compensation, provident fund, maternity benefits, etc.

Even in the newly notified Labour Codes introduced in 2020 by the Indian government in a supposed attempt to streamline the country’s corpus of central labour laws, domestic workers as a category of workers are strategically not mentioned. The piecemeal legislation by which domestic workers wrested certain recognition, including the right to social security, minimum wages, and to organize, now stand diluted considering the explicit silence of the four Labour Codes with respect to domestic workers. Furthermore, the Labour Codes have given de jure recognition to the chipping away at the labour administration’s regulatory powers already underway. The Codes legitimize the paradigm shift from active state intervention towards deregulation, that is, generalizing the principle that regulation of the work relation is a private matter between employers and workers; increasingly so even in the case of the formal sector. In this regard, we find labour inspection of employers’ compliance with prescribed labour standards have been strategically replaced by self-certification by employers. Hence, it is clearly paradoxical for the Indian government to claim that although it has not ratified the ILO Convention 189, it is committed to taking appropriate measures to protect informal workers.

This holds true even for South Asian countries where some form of legislative action has been cautiously introduced. Most interventions are in the welfarist paradigm, whereby governments restrict themselves to the question of skilling and social security but leave untouched the required amendments to several key labour laws that expressly shape the fundamentals of the work agreement, the nature of work, as well as ensure the right to unionize, and guarantee active regulation of work contracts by the state. Welfarist legislations introduced by some South Asian countries are also limited in terms of what they explicitly legitimize. In the case of Bangladesh, we find that its Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy, 2015, allows for employment of children (as young as 12 years) for paid domestic work.

Even if some laws are amended by local or regional governments, important federal legislation has still not been amended, and so the overall labour law regime in South Asian countries is ridden with inconsistencies from which domestic workers can hardly benefit. Further, the growing call for separate legislation for domestic workers has proven to be a dead end. This is evident in the negligible relief gained by the majority of domestic workers under Indian legislation like the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act and the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Act.

More than poor implementation of “good” legislation on informal workers in general and domestic workers in particular, the problem with such legislative action actually lies in its foundational logic. These laws strategically limit state intervention to extension of social security and not to active regulation of the work relation. Denied legal subjecthood as “workers”, domestic workers gain little by being made legal recipients of state welfare. This is because to actually access such welfare, the workers themselves need to be in a position to force administrative agencies to implement welfare provisions—and for this workers’ self-organization is essential. However, current labour law regimes make it exceedingly difficult for these workers to organize on the ground.  

Likewise, a marked contradiction in the unfolding policy discourse of South Asian countries is, on the one hand, recognition of the necessity of fixed working hours, and on the other, the legitimacy prescribed to full-time live-in domestic work agreements—an anomaly stemming from the concessions granted to employer lobbies during the formulation of Convention 189. Since the residence of live-in domestic workers is that of their employers, and this constitutes a private domain, regulation of the hours of work becomes extremely difficult, creating a situation akin to slavery. Indeed, when the very identity “worker” is built on quantifiable labour time, the continued recognition of full-time live-in domestic “help” keeps such workers tied down to informality, for such work agreements will remain nearly impossible to regulate, and the work performed under them extremely difficult to quantify. The need is to prohibit such work agreements as these are impossible to regulate, and here emerges an urgent need to go beyond the paradigm set by Convention 189.

The Domestic Work Relationship

With negligible state regulation of this booming industry, there is little effort made by South Asian governments to transform the highly personalized, informal nature of work from which the worker’s acute vulnerability stems. In the imagined separation between the public and private domains, the domestic worker moves between a position of a contracting person/wage-earner and a non-person/non-entity. The unequal power equation is further cemented with the employer fluctuating between use of contract-like principles when calculating wage hikes, leaves, quantifying tasks, etc., and opportunistic enforcement of the principles of informal customary relations when demanding flexibility with respect to overtime and performance of appended chores or debt-induced bondage. Consequently, because the state leaves the personal/private domain untouched by refusing to classify it as a workplace, it is here that casteist, communal, and racist norms and behaviour continue to be reproduced and reinforced.

The enormous private power of employers has become the norm in the case of such work. The highly unregulated work relation is characterized by low, stagnant wage rates unilaterally decided by formal bodies of employers or through informal employer coordination, delayed/easily reversible wage hikes, denial of leaves, rest, and food, extraction of overtime and greater quantum of work without compensation, forced confinement, rampant physical and verbal abuse, and the practice of “no-entry” by which employers debar a domestic worker from entering the residential complex, resulting in the worker being unable to report to work at other apartments.

In the absence of any consistent state regulation of the domestic services industry, in this workplace the employers’ writ runs large, and in their private domains they assert a quasi-magisterial power over workers, leaving workers in very vulnerable conditions. Indeed, given the low wages characteristic of such employment, many domestic workers are compelled to work “part-time” in several employers’ households, pitting them against several powerful employers with whom they have to negotiate their work hours, pay, leave, etc.

In the inner world of residential complexes, colonies, and palatial villas, it is the word of the employer that reigns. State intervention is limited to instances where employer–worker conflicts threaten to escalate into a serious law-and-order situation. Moreover, when the domain of this employer-dominated work relation is exposed to public intervention, state agencies like the police tend to intervene in favour of employers. Given the vulnerability of domestic workers, the police tend to ignore complaints received on behalf of workers. Consequently, cases of assault, rape, and murder of domestic workers by their employers hardly reach the courtroom, as local police stations refuse to file complaints or end up building weak cases against employers.[1]

Unionizing Domestic Workers

Not being recognized as “workers” under important labour laws of countries in South Asia has meant that it is additionally difficult for domestic workers to organize. Even today they struggle to register their unions. In a few states in India, such as in certain metropolises in Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Delhi, there is a history of unionization. Such unionization has led some state governments to amend certain important labour laws to include domestic workers. The Maharashtra and Haryana state governments in India, for instance, have included domestic work within the schedule of the Minimum Wages Act of their respective states. Likewise, a few unions have come to be registered in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. However, overall unionization remains dismally low, and by and large the pockets of unionization that exist are usually based on unregistered unions that are striving to work through an extra-legal existence.

Where unionization of domestic workers has emerged, it evolves around concerns regarding standardized wages, quantum of work extracted, protocols of entry and exit into housing societies, leave protocols, acts of verbal and physical abuse by employers, as well as police atrocities. Given that a significant number of domestic workers live in ghettoized slums, local slum issues like gender-based violence, police harassment, harassment by slum mafia, water problems, etc. are also a rallying point for the organization of migrant domestic workers. Unionization is still fleeting and often the regular influx of newer migrants, as well as other new developments in the labour market such as corporatization of domestic services, i.e., creation of housekeeping companies, has meant that existing organizations of domestic workers find it difficult to standardize wages and other aspects of working conditions. State apathy and connivance of local state agencies (like the police) with employers is another obstacle to unionization. In India, high-handed police action vis-à-vis domestic workers is a noted problem, although often police atrocities or police negligence with respect to workers’ complaints against employers has motivated more workers to join emerging unions.

Unionization of domestic workers has yet to take off, more resilient techniques at organization (such neighbourhood unionism in place of workplace conventional unionism) are still evolving, and unionization has yet to gain ground within the larger trade union movement. In this regard, existing mainstream trade union federations have yet to develop a firm foothold within this over-exploited workforce.

In places with longer periods of unionization of domestic workers, as well as under the aegis of some civil society groups and human rights platforms in South Asian countries, nation-wide campaigns for the ratification of ILO Convention 189 have emerged along with efforts to build momentum towards legislative action that embodies principles of the Convention. With the ushering in of the Convention in 2011, these platforms have proceeded to make its ratification an important agenda of the workers’ movement. In India, such efforts culminated in a draft Bill being circulated by a collective of domestic workers’ organizations and a Private Member’s Bill that was tabled in the Parliament, but to no avail because of the ensuing jurisprudential shift, which has been further crystallized in the new Labour Codes. Thus, the effort of neoliberal states in South Asia to refrain from concrete transformation of the fundamentals of the work process characterizing the industry is all too clear. Piecemeal welfarist legislation, skill development programs, and irresolute support for registration of domestic workers’ unions is how far South Asian governments have been willing to go in response to the mounting pressure for active state intervention.

In the light of the limited impact of Convention 189 in South Asia, its oft-repeated merits need to be contextualized within on-the-ground realities of changing structures of industrial relations and broader jurisprudential shifts in the labour law regimes of the concerned countries. As long as governments pursue the path of criminalization of the public assertion of collective labour and as long as their labour law regimes are shifting towards continuous withdrawal of the state from regulation of employer–employee relations, the sea of workers trapped in informal work stand to gain precious little under piecemeal welfarist legislation facilitated by ILO deliberations on “decent work”. Given the underlying circumvention of efforts to imbricate the state in this domain of work, it is clear that the spread of organized trade unionism among domestic workers is crucial. Greater organization of domestic workers and public regulation of domestic work are mutually reinforcing measures, which alone will lift such work out of its highly privatized, isolated, and informal status.  

In Lieu of a Conclusion

With its focus on ushering in minimum standards of work for domestic workers, ILO deliberations and the resulting Convention 189 were visibly anchored in efforts to ensure that while domestic workers attained certain basic rights without transforming the nature of the work itself. This at best has triggered piecemeal, tokenistic measures by governments of South Asian countries. In fact, closer scrutiny of Convention 189 also indicates that more than collective labour standards championed by trade unions, it is the individual human rights discourse (as championed by human rights and development institutions party to ILO proceedings) which characterizes significant components of the Convention. The fundamental problem with the individual-centric human rights paradigm is its underlying assumption that formal work contracts between individual employers and domestic workers are in themselves self-regulatory, i.e., inherently capable of ensuring minimum standards of work and an end to overexploitation.

We must contend with the challenges posed by the peculiar privatized/personalized nature of domestic work. Accounting for this reality of the personalized workplace as well as the growing deregulation paradigm of the labour law regimes in South Asia means recognizing the necessity of fundamentally transforming the nature of domestic work relations by firmly positioning the state within this domain of work.

With respect to the growing deregulatory industrial relations paradigm, and the intrinsically privatized nature of domestic work in its current form, existing ILO-led discourses prove highly inadequate. At present, there is a dire need for an approach that takes us well beyond piecemeal welfarist legislation that stops short of actually changing the format of highly individuated employer–employee relations in domestic work, i.e., by firmly imbricating the state within this domain of work. Evidently, the push for formalization of domestic work can no longer be abstracted from the question of and struggles for transformation of the personalized nature of this work and the corresponding employer–employee relationship built on enormous private power of employers. The state must be brought in for regulation of this world of work. For real change to unfold in the status of domestic workers, no longer can we demand anything less than the constitution of a tripartite structure of work relations in this industry.

Until society is in a condition to facilitate higher forms of socialization of social reproduction, and thereby bring domestic work out of the isolated private realm to the realm of public socialized work, an interim measure is the push towards its municipalization. Once state-backed municipalities or employment exchange offices step in as the principal employer and assign domestic workers to household units, paid domestic work can make the transition to public work, and lead to a much-needed change in the employer–employee relationship of this burgeoning industry. With a public authority to hold accountable for their work conditions, domestic workers can begin to emerge out of their highly vulnerable condition in the private domains of existing employers, as well as from the onerous task of negotiating with a multitude of employers.[2] It is in the body of such proposed employment registration offices run by municipalities that domestic workers will find greater space to organize and channelize their collective efforts—without which implementation of protective or welfarist legislation is a distant dream.  

[1] For a detailed engagement with the state’s reluctance to override the private power of employers, see Maya John (2017): “Quasi-Magisterial Power of ‘Madams’: An Insight into the Noida Case,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, No. 30, pp 15–17.

[2] On municipalization, see Maya John (2020): “Domesticity and Its Substitute: Lockdown and Beyond,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 55, No. 26–27, pp. 44–49, 27 June.