No call to go unanswered – A unique initiative for domestic workers

A toll free number has been piloted to record grievances among domestic workers. This unique platform enables a two-way communication between domestic workers and their representative organizations.

Feature | 03 February 2017
Now domestic workers can report their grievances systematically through an online mobile technology platform. This initiative has been taken up in three Indian states — Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu — by ILO in collaboration with 18 central and domestic workers unions.

This initiative helps understand the nature and extent of the grievances faced by domestic workers from the three states. It ensures that domestic workers have an appropriate outlet to report and seek redressal for their complaints. The mobile technology system will enable registered workers to report their issues and seek an intervention. This platform also facilitates workers’ organizations to reach out to their constituency with their rights-based messages.

As per NSSO statistics of 2011-2012, 92 percent of India’s population are employed in the informal sector, and only eight percent are engaged in the formal sector. In many South Asian countries, including India, the lack of livelihood opportunities in the formal sector, forces workers (both men and women) to opt for occupations in the informal sector as an alternative livelihood strategy.

ILO Recommendation 204 states that “most people enter the informal economy not by choice but as a consequence of a lack of opportunities in the formal economy and in the absence of other means of livelihood.” While informality in employment has peaked in India, there are certain low-end, and highly invisible occupations that have been emerging as alternative livelihood options for millions of women. Domestic work is one of these options.

With more and more workers transitioning in informality, there is a dire need to regulate the working conditions in the informal sector. Till date, very few legislative frameworks in India have been extended to informal workers. A large chunk of these workers remain outside the purview of labour law legislations. Attempts are being made by central and state governments to recognize them as ‘workers’ and extend welfare benefits to them under the various governmental schemes rather than creating comprehensive regulations on working conditions.

Emphasizing the need to promote formal employment, ILO Recommendation 204 states that “informality has multiple causes, including governance and structural issues, and that public policies can speed up the process of transition to the formal economy, in a context of social dialogue…” In the case of domestic workers, the need to look at these instruments to formalize employment relationships — between domestic workers and their employers —acquires significance considering that domestic work takes place in private households without any public scrutiny.

The socio-cultural practices and the dominant perceptions about domestic work is that it is an unskilled work, naturally suited to only women. Whether the work is performed at the worker’s own household or is a paid livelihood activity in the labour market— the common perception is that the woman is the primary care-giver and that it is her duty to perform such tasks.

Informality coupled with absence of legal frameworks makes the role of trade union organizations in this sector critical. Trade unions and civil society organizations (CSOs) have been organizing workers in this sector and assisting them to register themselves as exclusive domestic workers’ unions.

As of now, there are no formal complaints mechanisms that deals with issues faced by domestic workers. The issues can range from —payment of wages, right to a safe working environment, fixing normal work hours, overtime compensation, allocating periods of daily and weekly rest and paid annual leave among others.

No regulation exist over working conditions as there are no written/formal contracts and the employment relationship is struck on a verbal commitment basis. In such scenarios, proving a violation of verbal agreements from either side, reporting it and then dealing with it becomes increasingly problematic. Severe cases of abuse - physical and sexual – tend to go unreported. They are seen merely as law and order issues rather than a labour rights violation issue. Given this gap, the unions are taking the responsibility to resolve conflicts arising between domestic workers and their employers.

Unions are even assisting domestic workers to seek redressal through legal and formal means. The nature and extent of grievances faced by domestic workers are different from those employed in other informal jobs. The system enables registered workers to report their complaints anonymously or with full disclosure. Once the grievances from different regions are collected, this data is further analyzed to suggest a comprehensive grievance redressal system.

The findings can feed into the policy discussion and strengthen the collective efforts of ILO’s tripartite constituents towards achieving a legal framework for domestic workers. Additionally, through this mobile technology platform, unions are able exercise their relevance that of playing a change-making role in the lives of the workers. This helps them also gain members’ trust and confidence. With the aid of technology, it is possible that the sector in future turns more transparent along with increased protection of the workers’ rights.

A successful pilot of this initiative will equip unions to replicate the same for other category of informal workers. ILO believes this tool to be effective in addressing the concerns of domestic workers for the following reasons:
  1. It does not require workers to own a smartphone, app, or internet connection. Rather, they simply dial-in using any type of mobile device.
  2. They will be able to record their grievances in their local language, and any message they receive from the labour union will also be in their local language.
  3. Calling into the system to leave a grievance will not cost them money, so it will not deter them from making that call. With the information provided, unions will be able to track every grievance that comes in in a very systematic manner. An issues tracker feature on the platform is available to respond to each complaint methodologically.
  4. ILO will have access to this tracker, and will also be able to monitor progress remotely.
The trade union focal points from these three states were given training on operational modalities of the platform. Trade unions have registered domestic workers mobile numbers to the platform. The toll-free numbers have been kept open and even domestic workers who aren’t members of any union can call the number and report their grievance. This then is forwarded to the nearest union as per their location. The pilot has been launched in December 2016.  

Helpline numbers:
022 62304108
022 49753508
022 71970204