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Common Cause files petition for domestic workers

New Delhi, November 23: In the wake of brutal incidents of murder, rape, physical and sexual assault of domestic workers across the country, such as the recent case of a 16-year-old domestic worker being hacked to pieces for asking for her salary, Common Cause has filed a writ petition in public interest to safeguard their interests and to recognise the scope of their contribution to the wellbeing of the society.

The petition covers an area where domestic workers, as citizens of India, have been gravely deprived, despite their number going up to over 4.2 million, in the unorganised economy. According to data, Indian homes have witnessed a 120% increase in domestic workers in the decade post liberalisation. While the figure was 7,40,000 in 1991, it has increased to 16.6 lakh in 2001. Common Cause has therefore sought an urgent intervention of the Supreme Court to protect and safeguard the rights and livelihood of those who perform a crucial function by tending to the domestic needs of our society.

Common Cause and its co-petitioners have underlined the right of domestic workers to live with dignity, and the objective of the petition is to secure such a right under Article 21 of the Constitution. The co-petitioners of the case are National Platform for Domestic Workers (NPDW) and Aruna Roy of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. While NPDW is a platform of 36 national and regional domestic workers’ unions and federations from around the country that are demanding comprehensive legislation for domestic workers, Roy is a social activist, well known for spearheading the Right to Information campaign as well as recipient of the Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2000. Constituents of NPDW can be found at the following link: http://commoncause.in/uploadimage/case/1055883128NPDW.pdf

The prayers in the writ petition include the following:

  1. Recognise domestic work as work covered adequately under the Minimum Wages Act 1948. Domestic workers should also be notified as workers under the Act in the centre as well as all the states, as has been done in eight states, including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Jharkhand and Gujarat.

  2. Recognise provisions such as maximum eight-hours duty per day and at least one mandatory weekly leave as basic rights guaranteed under the right to dignified life under Article 21 of the Constitution. These provisions should also be extended to domestic workers.  

  3. In light of legal vacuum created due to absence of a statute protecting domestic workers, interim guidelines should be issued for safeguarding the human rights and interest of domestic workers inside private homes. Among other things, they should have the right to paid leaves, notice of termination and one month’s salary in lieu of notice of termination, in line with ILO Convention 189, until a law is brought in place.

  4. Domestic workers should get all benefits of citizenship and welfare schemes, whether applicable to organised or unorganised sector workers, such as health, disability, pension, insurance and maternity benefits.

  5.  Committee of experts should be appointed under the supervision of the Supreme Court to suggest means to regulate domestic workers’ employment agencies, terms and conditions of dignified employment of domestic workers as well as setting up of a mechanism for dispute resolution.

The petitioners believe that the domestic workers fall among India’s invisible workforce in the informal sector. Latent classism and lack of education make domestic workers prone to violence and abuse at the hands of their employers and placement agencies. Worsening their vulnerabilities are the absence of proper documentation, which also increases their reliance on employers to access social security benefits. As employment is largely through word of mouth, personal referrals or other informal media, employment contracts are rarely negotiated, leaving the terms of employment to the whims of the employer. Absence of written terms also leaves domestic workers vulnerable to arbitrary dismissal, wage deductions for accidental damage to property, evictions without notice, withholding of wages and other exploitative labour practices.

Common Cause’s petition is aimed at preventing further exacerbation of the rights and interests of domestic workers, while preventing their abuse and exploitation in completely unregulated and unmonitored settings. Before filing the petition, Common Cause spent almost two years trying the advocacy route to address the problem as also in legal research on the subject. It has written letters and made representations to the highest authorities in the country including the Prime Minister and the Labour Minister with fervent appeals to do something substantial to protect the human dignity of the domestic workers. The organisation had to finally resort to legal action when all other efforts failed.

A copy of the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1389 of 2018 can be accessed here: http://commoncause.in/ppil_details.php?id=40

Common Cause is a registered society dedicated to championing public causes and the campaign for probity in public life and integrity of institutions. It seeks to promote democracy, good governance and public policy reforms through advocacy, interventions and by formal and informal policy engagements. It was founded in 1980 by the legendary Mr H D Shourie and some of India’s best-known (retired) civil servants. Common Cause is especially known for the difference it has made through a large number of Public Interest Litigations filed in the Courts, some of the recent ones of which have been the cancellation of entire telecom spectrum (2G) allocation; cancellation of arbitrarily allocated captive coal blocks; Apex Court's recognition of  individuals' right to die with dignity and legal validity of living will; and a contempt petition for non-appointment of the Lokpal, to name only a few. For more details about the Common Cause petitions, please visit our website (www.commoncause.in).