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.
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.
Though the Indian government is reluctant to create laws that involve reaching into private homes, it has recently done so through new domestic violence and child labor laws. The poor implementation of these laws, however, has been constantly criticized by NGOs and human rights activists.
A chance to improve
Designating a home as a workplace would require amending laws, like the Minimum Wages Act and the Maternity Benefits Act, to include domestic workers. This, observers point out, could be the wrong road to go down since other provisions in these older laws may not apply to the domestic worker.
A handful of state governments have extended the minimum wage rule to domestic workers but there are no nationwide laws regulating their basic rights. Meanwhile, different government branches are split on how to bring rights to include domestic workers.
“It will also address sexual harassment, but this is an opportunity to provide for their broader welfare,” he says.
Other experts insist that adding yet another new law, in an overly legislated country, would not only be hard to pass, it would be hard to enforce. “Our houses … are considered sacrosanct,” says Anil Swarup, a senior official in the Ministry of Labor.
But there is still hope, Mr. Swarup is quick to add. He cites India’s smart-card health insurance covering almost 70 million people living under the poverty line, and executed without any legislation, as an example that it’s possible to successfully tackle the issue creatively.
Giving employers incentive to provide for the welfare of their domestic workers is the way forward, he insists. “There are many approaches to sensitive issues,” he says.
The bill, which came before Parliament in December, is currently before a parliamentary committee that invites comments from all interested parties. The government will take a final call before the bill comes back to the lawmakers, which is expected to happen in the next few months.
Shamli Haldar, a domestic worker since she was 12, says it's time things changed. “People who work in offices get holidays and bonuses for festivals but we don’t.… Are we not human?”