The International Labour Organisation has done well to include a draft convention on decent work for domestic workers in the agenda for the 100th session of the International Labour Conference, scheduled for June. For centuries the domestic workers have lived along the margins of the international workforce. Well-documented reports by the ILO and other organisations point to the universality of their woes. Entirely informal in nature, domestic work, as its most anguished state, is nothing but a form of slavery, at its best, it is dogged by uncertainty. The most common failing by societies is the exploitation of this ubiquitious group of workers. Data available with the ILO suggest that domestic work ranges from four per cent to 10 per cent of total employment in developing economies and between one per cent and 2.5 per cent in industrial countries. As the ILO’s 2010 report, ‘Decent work for domestic workers’, points out, this section of the workforce is “undervalued and poorly regulated” and a major part of it is “overworked, underpaid and unprotected.” An international convention backed by the ILO is an overdue move towards mainstreaming this long-neglected workforce.  

In India, as in the rest of the world, there is no clarity on the number of domestic workers. National estimates vary from 4.5 million to more than 100 million. As elsewhere, they are drawn from the informal sector and comprise, largely, women and children. However, there are moves by the Central and various State governments to put in place legal measures that have the potential to create a better future. That only a handful of States have set minimum wages for domestic workers is one clear indication that the country has a long way to go before it gives them statute-backed recognition and dignity.

Two recommendations by the Central government’s task force merit urgent attention: the need to include domestic work in the Union list of scheduled work for fixation and enforcement of minimum wages, and the extension of welfare measures, including health, maternity, and disability benefits and old age pension, to domestic workers.

The current moves, in India and elsewhere, can only be described as a much-delayed attempt to do the minimum decent thing by this crucial segment of the workforce.

The hope is that this will be the beginning of a coordinated process that addresses a global social injustice that has persisted for centuries and will continue unless there is political and social will to end it.

The Hindu

Source: Daily Mirror – 19.03.2011