A glimmer of hope for domestic workers
If you live in Bangalore you will have to pay your domestic worker Rs 450/- a month (11.3 USD) for an hour’s work a day (Rs 15/- per hour or .37 USD) – this is the new law in Karnataka. This is the minimum wage that the state government has set for domestic workers. Karnataka is one of the two states in India (Kerala is the other) to have a minimum wage for domestic workers and this Rs 450/- is simply an increase from the Rs 299/- per hour that existed earlier.
There are three aspects to this:
1) Is Rs 15/- an hour or Rs 450/- a month (one hour’s work everyday) fair and just?
2) Can it be implemented?
3) What about the rest of India?
Let me address (3) first. Although India has the Minimum Wages Act, oddly it does not include domestic workers, although there is a provision in the Act (Section 27) which “empowers appropriate Governments to extend the application of the Act to any other employment considered proper.” That’s what Karnataka, a pioneering state in this regard, has done. Other states have obviously not thought it necessary to include domestic workers, who are largely unorganized and exploited in India.
Ironically though, the Indian government has introduced rules for the recruitment of female Indian domestic workers into the UAE, including a minimum wage of 1100 dirhams per month ($299.5) 11953.045 INR. These new rules for female domestic workers came into effect on February 20 this year.
On the domestic front, the good news is that a draft bill has been prepared by the central government and when this Bill becomes law “a district board will be set up which will not only fix their wages but also settle disputes and conduct raids.”
So this means that all states in India will have to wake up.
Now to the burning question (1):
Is the Rs 450/- monthly (for one hour’s work daily), which amounts to Rs 3600/- (for 8 hours work daily) fixed by the Karnataka government a fair wage?
Let’s first see what the Minimum Wage Act is all about. Well, it has not set out a minimum wage in rupee terms but just stipulated that the wage be a living wage to be decided by each state. Certain norms have been laid out including that of calorie requirements, yards of cloth per family and so on. The Act also stipulates that minimum wage rates are to be revised keeping in mind inflation. Additionally, the guidelines laid down for the minimum wage by the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) and the Supreme Court suggest that a minimum wage for 8 hours of work should be high enough to cover all the basic needs of the worker, her/his spouse and two children.
Different rates are fixed for different industries. For domestic workers it’s Rs 450/- (in Karnataka) and well, we immediately know that the Rs 450/- is not sufficient as a living wage. A study undertaken in Bangalore reveals the average monthly expenditure of a domestic worker’s family living in a slum in Bangalore is Rs 5,189, out of which Rs 1,959 is spent on food, Rs 817 on loan repayments, Rs 555 as rent, and the rest for other needs. This is not counting untoward medical expenses and educational needs.
In any case, Rs 3600/- a month (for 8 hours work everyday) is a hypothetical amount as it is rare for domestic workers in India to actually get Rs 3600/- a month or Rs 450/- an hour. They will quite likely get about half that amount. We are talking about part-time workers here, not live-ins.
The only way a domestic worker can get by even if she gets Rs 3600/- a month is if hers is a supplementary income and/or she already has living quarters.
Poor wages reinforce the vicious cycle of poverty. There is no money to provide nutritious food to children or educate them. This forces kids to drop out of school to supplement the family income…and the vicious circle is complete.
Coming to my question number 2, as to whether laying down a decent wage for domestic workers is workable…well, the problem is the demand/supply equation. There is a large supply of cheap labour and this is what keeps the wages of the domestics low. Therefore the rules would be difficult to implement. However, as domestic workers unions get stronger, employers may be forced to shell out the required amounts. There is no doubt that domestic workers movements are getting stronger in metros…and the writing is on the wall.
From the point of view of employers
Can employers afford that Rs 450/- a month for an hour’s work?
Take an example of an average middle income family with a monthly income of Rs 10,000/- which employs a maid for say one and a half hours a day. The pay-out will amount Rs 675/- monthly, working out to be 5-6 percent of total income of the family. It’s not as if the maid’s salary will be unaffordable…the question is whether any family would even want to give this amount to a domestic worker. The situation now is that people are used to paying low salaries. Those who earn upwards of Rs 15,000 can certainly afford to pay…but again the question arises as to whether people will be willing to pay. Generally there is a reluctance, so used have we got to domestic slaves workers .
Another issue is that minimum wages will tend to differ from state to state…why in Nagaland the rate is only Rs 25/- per day (8 hours work daily which works out to be Rs 750 a month) while in Kerala it is Rs 134 per day which works out to be more than Rs 4000/- a month for 8 hours work daily, assuming that the worker gets Sunday as a paid holiday (This is not for domestic workers, but overall labour). It will be a long time before any kind of equity will happen between various states, but once domestic labour is treated like any other labour, it will be a big step forward. They have a long struggle ahead, but once domestic workers become recognized as labour, they will get the respect they deserve and more money too.
(photograph is by me and copyrighted)