Perils of Domestic labour in Chennai

Domestic workers in India ease the burden of households by undertaking chores like washing, cleaning, pet care, gardening etc in return for remuneration and still are not recognised as ‘workers’ and are bereft of  proper wages and reliefs that other sectors enjoy.

Domestic work has always been viewed through a different lens in the country, seen as a menial and dirty work, those working are often subjected to discrimination, ill-treatment, erratic working hours and unfair wages. Most of them belong to the marginalised section of the society, working full time , part time or live-in on wages not fixed, it mostly depends on the bargain they get and also on being skilled or semi-skilled.

Hired mostly through word of mouth and informally, they work without paid leaves, insurance or pension even. At large at the mercy of their employers, this sector is perhaps the most ignored and over-worked.

What’s alarming is the fact that households that employ this labour cannot do without them one day and yet this miscarriage of justice is carried on daily basis and in every other house.

While no statistics have been able to give a definite number of the people working as domestic helps, data analysis by National Survey organisation (NSSO) revealed that around 4.2 million are employed in this unorganised sector, with more than half being women.

Women are mostly mistreated and harassed either verbally or sexually even. It is also largely reported in the media but seldom actions have been taken. Data released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in February 2014 published a report that showed that overall in India’s 28 states and 7 Union Territories, there were 3,564 cases reported of alleged violence and harassment against domestic workers.

This data also throws light on the number of such that go unreported.

After a recent study on the conditions of domestic workers in Chennai, following was reported:

Domestic workers live in slums all over the city, working mostly in vicinity. They live Mainly in areas like, Kannagi Nagar, Pallavan nagar ,Sivaganga Nagar at Island Grounds and Kutchery road near Mylapore among others.

Flooding in Kannagi Nagar slum


Meenakshi, a worker along with three others enlist their problems, sitting in a hut flooded due to erratic rains that have hit the city lately. Mostly talking about their living conditions she seemed at peace with her working conditions. ” I get Rs7000 working at 4 houses, 7 days a week. I have to skip work sometimes due to fatigue otherwise I don’t have fixed off.”  Others replied in affirmative but also pointing out cases where employers have had fixed days for leaves.

“It depends on our employer completely. I left work at a lot of houses simply because they would not grant me leave and would deduct my salary if  I took off.” Said another one who works as a domestic worker nearby.

Personally neither one of them had faced any harassment by their employers but were aware of women who lived in the same locality to have gone such ordeals. They usually leave for work early in morning so that they cover all houses they are employed in and get back before dusk.” This much we have to take care, who will prepare meals for our families if we don’t come back on time.”

In another interview, B. Kannagi narrates a tale of her woes. Her husband is a mechanic and earns Rs10,000 per month. They have three children who are studying in a government school nearby.


Talking about their living conditions they threw light on the fact that during monsoons like the one ongoing, their dwellings are flooded and they wander around to set up temporary shelter till the rains subside.

Such water logging and stagnation gives birth to water-borne diseases and increase their trip to the government hospital. Municipal water tanks come twice weekly and each house fills 10 kodums (pot). That is water they have to make do for cooking, washing, cleaning etc.

Such problems are faced by every slum-dweller, they said.

Most of them had toilets in their houses but at the back , open or semi open. On being asked they simply refuted by saying that at least they have one.

Working as domestic workers for over quite some time now, they also vouched that it’s high time that government intervenes and help them fix wages for them. The main problem they face is bargaining the price for their labour, as this is an unorganised sector, often employers end up undermining their efforts.

Demanding minimum wages. PC: The Hindu


Many states in India like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra have set up welfare schemes for domestic workers and have also vouched to implement Minimum Wages Act 1948 but there have been no reports on such advancements as such. Maharashtra though under section (27A) of the Maharashtra State Public Service Conduct Act 1997 has put in affect the law that bars government employees to employ domestic work below 14 years of age.

Tamil Nadu governs this sector under the Department of wages and employment and were unavailable for comments on the progress made by the committee.

Ministry of Labour and Employment have set up Minimum wages for domestic helps in 7 states but whether it’s in affect or not is yet to be seen. Domestic Workers Act (DWA) 2008 was established by the government but its under direct State control and the centre is yet to pass a legislation pertaining to the same. The DWA enlists 15 days of paid leave, pension for those who retire ( up till age 60) and insurance as well.

On 5th September 2013, Convention 189 at the International Labour  Conference in Geneva came into force that addressed issues such as wages, working hours, forced labour, trafficking and abuse at workplace. So far, 21 have adopted this convention, India is yet to.

Even after several agitations like that in Nagpur 2012 that demanded pension and ration cards and Maharashtra uprising , the Centre still has a lukewarm response to it. The Maharashtra State government though took a step ahead and set up a ‘Janashree Yojna’ that entails benefits like scholarship for two children from each family of Domestic workers and gives accident and death coverage.

Under the DWA, the corporation has to tie up with the placement agencies to provide benefits to such workers and that is where the discrepancy lies. Awareness is what lacks with this sector and the State does not seem to be helping them realise their rights.




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