The country is said to be the largest employer of domestic workers in the world together with Brazil and although no statistics are fully reliable, estimates derived from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO 2004-05) indicate that there are more than 4 million domestic workers in the country.
As a crucial background to this phenomenon, one finds intense rural-urban migrations, the progressive expansion of urban middle classes, and the inheritance of cultural codes from the caste system. The legacy of the caste system is particularly relevant to the experience of domestic workers due to the social and physical boundaries that existed between people of different castes on the basis of their different associations with ideas on dirtiness-cleanness. Negative stereotyping also affects girls and women coming from so-called ‘tribal’ areas of the country who migrate to larger cities (whether in voluntary or forced ways, or in between) as domestic workers or young spouses. Indian women also migrate as domestic and care workers to the Gulf States.
There has been quite some dynamism around the C189 with trade unions and NGOs lobbying for India to vote in favor of the Convention in 2011. However, after the positive outcome of the Indian ‘yes’ vote in Geneva, the government has not taken further action and has not accepted the proposal for a federal law on domestic work that was drafted by the National Platform for Domestic Workers Rights – an umbrella network which includes human rights organizations, domestic workers’ groups, trade unions, Catholic groups, pro-Dalit organizations, etc. The rejection of this draft bill is the latest episode in a series of promises that the Indian governments have repeatedly failed to accomplish since the first proposal of this kind in 1959. Currently, the legal framework that applies to domestic workers differs from one Indian State to the other. For example, the states of Kerala and Karnataka have adopted minimum wage laws for domestic workers, and regulations are in place also in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.
India has a strong tradition of mobilization for labor rights, with different central trade unions active in the country. A women’s trade union called SEWA has been particularly active on issues of domestic workers’ rights. Nevertheless, no trade union is in place for domestic workers, nor are they able to join traditional unions.
Country-expert: Madhurima Das
Local workshop: February 2017