Domestic Workers in India: An Invisible Workforce

Authored by: Neymat Chadha

Edited by: Kausumi Saha

ABSTRACT 

Domestic workers are an indispensable part of the everyday lives of a large segment of India’s urban population. However, in the absence of a national policy to recognise the specific nature of domestic work, their categorisation as ‘workers’ is merely theoretical. This issue brief highlights the isolated nature of domestic work in India, with particular reference to legislative and social issues, which keep them at bay from availing their rights as ‘recognised workers’. 

CONTEXT 

The International Labour Organisation characterises domestic workers as workers who perform domestic work for pay and remuneration (ILO 2018). The nature of their work includes a range of services in the domestic sphere, such as sweeping, cleaning, washing clothes, care work, driving, and security, among others. According to NSSO (2012), India has 39 lakh people employed as domestic workers, out of which at least 26 lakh are women. 

Over the years, there has been an increase in both the supply and demand for domestic workers in India. Economist Jayati Ghosh (2014) highlights two broad reasons for this. Firstly, despite the high economic growth in India, employment opportunities continue to be scarce. Secondly, there has been a substantial rise in inequality in India, which, on one hand, has led to a growing need for additional income through self-employment but on the other hand, India has witnessed a rising middle-class population that is now capable of expanding its expenditure and afford to hire domestic workers (ibid.). 

The spike in domestic workers is also amplified by economic processes such as industrialisation and urbanisation, which have led an increasing surplus of unskilled workers from rural agrarian economies to move to cities in search of better sources of income. Most of these workers are a part of the informal urban economy, particularly in the ever-expanding services sector (Neetha and Palriwala 2011, Sarkar  2019). While domestic work provides better opportunities and presumably a better quality of life to mostly unskilled rural women workers and the urban poor, its informal and highly deregulated nature creates conditions for poor work environment, low wages, routine harassment, and abuse. This issue brief highlights the isolated nature of domestic work in India, with particular reference to the specificity of the domestic work industry and a wide range of concerns, which keep domestic workers from accessing their rights as ‘recognised workers’.

SITUATING DOMESTIC WORKERS IN DATA AND POLICY

THE PROBLEM OF DATA 

In India, domestic work is one of the largest and yet the least regulated industry. This is evident from the paucity of official data at the intermediate level concerning domestic workers along with the presence of conflicting estimates. With the increasing role of domestic workers in running urban households, the NSSO data quoted earlier seems contentious, particularly when compared with various estimates. 

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