India overlooks abuse of domestic workers in new sexual harassment bill
India's first bill to protect women against sexual harassment has been slammed for excluding a provision for domestic workers who make up the bulk of women workers.
As more and more women enter the workforce, India is en route to passing its first law to protect them against rampant sexual harassment in the workplace.Skip to next paragraph
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If passed, the law would require companies and institutions – both public and private – to establish female-led internal committees to follow up on sexual harassment complaints.
But the bill has been slammed for excluding domestic workers, estimated to be up to 90 million strong and 70 percent women. Without including homes that employ housekeepers, cooks, and nannies, critics say the new law will be nearly useless. The ensuing legal debate is also highlighting the emergence of a civil society alarmed by the mistreatment of domestic workers as India attempts to safeguard women's rights and beef up workplace standards.
A welcome step, but not far enough
The law has generally been welcomed for being the first to tackle such a widespread issue. Mirai Chatterjee, from the nongovernmental organization Self Employed Women’s Association, described it as a “significant step forward,” but “deficient” due to its lack of a specific provision for domestic workers.
NGOs assert that by using the “workplace” as a criteria for protection under the legislation, it excludes “homes” where millions of domestic workers labor. If a home employs anyone, they argue, it should be included in this law.
“This law should not be defined by physical boundaries,” says Pankaj Sharma, head of the Center for Transforming India, the NGO behind a recent study that found 88 percent of female workers in the information technology and outsourcing industries had been harassed; 82 percent of these women also experienced sexual harassment outside the office.
Kalyani Sanasi, who is a cook for several different families, said that a law specifically including domestic workers would be useful especially for younger women nervous to work in male-dominated houses where lewd comments and harassment are common.
Domestic workers are often victims of physical assault and verbal abuse. Occasionally, employers get caught red-handed and publicly shamed in the media. One couple from Bangalore, for instance, was accused of torturing their 14-year-old maid. But workers are reticent to complain to the police, who are widely believed to take bribes from employers, say Ms. Sanasi and others. “The police do not listen to the poor,” Sanasi says.