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Recognition for India’s invisible workers

Domestic workers play an important role in the economy and they allow others to go out and earn money. Yet they remain invisible, unprotected and their contribution is often not recognized. At the forthcoming International Labour Conference (in Geneva, 1-17 June) the ILO and its members will debate drafts that could lead to the first international instruments specifically designed to protect domestic workers. By Neelam Agnihotri, Communication & Information Officer, ILO Country Office for India

Article | 30 May 2011

(New Delhi, India) Kuwari’s face lights up with pride as she writes her name in English. Born into a poor family of landless agricultural workers in Jharkhand, India, life has been an unending struggle for survival. Her parents were too poor to provide two full meals to their six children; education was a distant dream. As the eldest child she was sent to Delhi to work when she was 14, to augment the family’s meager income. But since she was uneducated, house work was the only option before her. A friend put her in touch with a voluntary organization that helped her find a job with a good family employer.

While working she also enrolled in a training programme, the Skills Development Initiative for Domestic Workers, run by the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MOLE) and Delhi State Government, with technical assistance from the Norwegian funded project implemented by the ILO. This not only helped her organize her work more systematically but also boosted her self- esteem. She realized she was not alone and there were many more like her.

Jasinta also came to Delhi from a remote village, Amlai Gudi in Assam. But after working for a year she was cheated by the placement agency and paid only half her wages. Luckily she found a new job quickly and, with the help of a voluntary organization, she also attended the domestic workers’ training programme. “I used to work in a haphazard manner. This training has helped me improve my performance. My employer is very happy with the way I work now and has given me a raise,” said Jasinta.

Paid domestic work is increasing in many economies worldwide but it remains a virtually invisible form of employment in many countries. It is also generally seen as unskilled work, a natural extension of women’s work in their own homes. Thus, many domestic workers endure very poor working conditions, many are underpaid, have no social security coverage, work long hours, in difficult and not always safe conditions. Some are vulnerable to trafficking, sexual, physical and psychological abuse, especially when they are migrants.

Yet, domestic and care work in the home is vital for the economy. Domestic workers allow millions of others to go out to work while maintaining domestic routines. In India a new domestic worker can expect to earn about INR1,800 (US$41) per month. This should increase as the worker acquires additional skills such as cooking or child care.

According to Ms Tine Staermose, Director, ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia and Country Office for India, besides better wages, what also matters to domestic workers is respect and recognition, and the realization that their work is important. "Besides recognizing their identity as workers with rights, they also form a very important segment, whose contribution to the economy and growth needs to be recognized,” she said.

Domestic work has been an ILO concern since its earliest days and gender equality is at the core of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda. Domestic workers form a significant part of the working population. Given their vulnerability to dangerous, discriminatory and abusive working conditions, the ILO recognizes the need to promote decent work for domestic workers.

To bring the issue centre stage and raise awareness about the rights of domestic workers, a public campaign “Your work is important” was launched in India in 2009. To professionalize domestic work and promote better wages and working conditions, the ILO collaborated with the MOLE, the Government of India and the Delhi Government to set up pilot training programmes to train and re-skill domestic workers and household assistants. The ILO also collaborated with the National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) to help domestic workers in selected states get organized and train them to improve their skills, including work discipline and the so-called soft skills that can lead to career progression.

In June 2010 the ILO’s membership held their first discussion on the adoption of new international labour standards for domestic workers at the International Labour Conference (ILC), their annual meeting. On the basis of this draft a Convention and Recommendation were prepared and sent to ILO constituents for comments. The proposed instruments provide minimum levels of protection for domestic workers in a number of areas, including wages, working conditions, social protection and occupational health and safety.

Ms Sachiko Yamamoto, ILO’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific said: “It is encouraging and timely to see the positive comments coming from so many member States here in Asia and the Pacific.”

The constituents’ feedback was incorporated into new drafts that will be considered during a second ILC discussion in June 2011, with a view towards the adoption of a new international labour standard on domestic workers. If adopted, these new instruments will be a major step towards making invisible workers like Kuwari and Jasinta visibile, giving public recognition to the value of their work, and bringing closer the prospect of decent work for them.