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Of Law, Language and Labour

Situating the Need for Legislation in Domestic Work

The reluctance of the state to acknowledge domestic workers as workers and its passive stance on the demand for a specific legislation foregrounds a dominant social bias. 

The authors would like to acknowledge the comments of Saumyajit Bhattacharya, Rakhi Sehgal and Sudheesh R C. 

16 June this year marked the fourth International Domestic Workers’ Day, which signifies the adoption of the Domestic Workers’ Convention, 2011 by the International Labour Organization. India has not yet ratified the convention, and does not intend to do so until national laws and practices are in conformity with the tenets of the convention, as Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya recently remarked (Press Trust of India 2015). Yet, the lack of political will to adopt a national level legislation ensuring due labour rights for domestic workers indicates a no way forward situation.  

The need to address paid domestic work as a labour issue is not new at all—the first bill concerning the matter was first introduced as early as 1959 (Neetha and  Palriwala 2010). Since then many bills have been introduced in the Indian parliament, however, as N Neetha and Rajni Palriwala have argued, there has been a “governmental resistance—active or through neglect—to regulating this sector”. It is only recently that domestic workers have been brought under the ambit of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013, and extended a few piecemeal benefits under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). The inclusion has come about only through longstanding struggles by civil society groups. On 16 June 2015, even as labour unions and domestic worker organisations observed the day, and as the Delhi government announced that it will set up a committee to look into the issues faced by domestic workers, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the significant message that the day holds—that of appropriate regulations to ensure decent work for domestic workers.

As per the statistics of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) (2004-05), there are 4.75 million domestic workers in India, of which 3 million are women in urban areas. A report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) (2007) observed that an overwhelming 54 % of regular women workers in the unorganised sector are concentrated in work in private households, largely in domestic services. While it has been claimed that these figures greatly underestimate the extent and magnitude of paid domestic work in the country, they also bring to the fore the challenges of enumeration and estimation of workers in the sector, characterised by a distinctly complex set of work relations. Distinctly complex, as we will attempt to highlight, because it is characterised by notions of shame and stigma, deeply connected to caste and servitude, which deepens the vulnerabilities of working in the private space of someone else’s home.

As Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum (2010), in their work on paid domestic work in India, have argued, the employment of domestic help is not a contractual relation, rather it is a culture in which servitude is normalised. They understand servitude as an ideology that is characterised by an element of cultural superiority of one over the other, in this case, of the employer over the domestic help, legitimising the dependency of the latter over the former.

While there is a growing movement in India and elsewhere in the world to recognise domestic work as work, it cannot be overlooked that the present concerns are also historically embedded in exploitative nature of the work. As we will argue in this essay, the need for a legislation to confer rights to domestic workers is significant not only to accord recognition as “workers” to this largely invisible class of workers, but also pertinent from the perspective of shifting a discourse of work rooted in stigma and shame.

Understanding “Stigma” in Domestic Work

The growth of paid domestic work as a “preferred” livelihood option for the urban poor women is linked to the larger ongoing political and economic changes in the country. As various studies have noted, paid domestic work remains one of the activities in which women migrants are concentrated as workers (Mazumdar et al 2013). It emerges as a preference for women workers for two main reasons. One, most of the work is organised in part-time arrangement, which gives them the “choice” to spend a fraction of a day doing this as a paid work and rest doing their own household work, and two, it is deemed to be a work that women are already familiar with and thus do not require any specific skills. According to Neetha (2008), in terms of the proportion of female employment, paid domestic work employs maximum number of women after education in the service sector.

The work has a low social status, which becomes apparent when one looks at the overwhelming participation of socially marginal groups:  although women remain a vulnerable group, domestic work includes an even more vulnerable population among women, that from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes from the poorest regions of the country. According to historian Leonore Davidoff, the low status of domestic work as an activity gets reaffirmed when it is left only for the socially vulnerable groups, which is largely the case in India today. In our interactions with women workers, we heard several articulations of the low and stigmatised status of this work. Even several upper caste and non-Dalit women who are poor have no option but to take up this work as a coping strategy. In return, they endure the stigma of the work, which is both externally imposed as well as internalised by the workers themselves.  A woman domestic worker, who migrated from Uttar Pradesh many years ago and had to take up paid domestic work after her husband was unable provide for the family, said: my family, it is not known (that I work as a domestic worker). My brothers and other relatives [back in the village] do not know about my work…they would say ‘you clean joothan (left-overs from others dishes), cleaning others homes’ They will get upset.  My brothers are economically well-off; they are landlords but that does not get us any benefits.

The low status and stigmatised status of this work is confirmed by empirical studies in different parts of the country (Devika et al 2011; Ray 2000). It is worth noting that it is not only upper caste women who associate shame with this work but one also hears the same kind of narratives from tribal and Dalit women. A 21 year old Dalit domestic worker, who is also learning stitching that will allow her to eventually leave this work to become a tailor, shared her notion of domestic work in the following words

There are people who are into good jobs, and then there are people like us, who do jhadoo-pochha (cleaning-mopping). If we go somewhere, and people ask us what work we do, we respond saying “jhadoo-pochha”. It feels quite strange. It feels really humiliating in sharing (that this is what we do).

The shame women domestic workers refer to is not limited to their emotional life, but also results in shaping the practices of their everyday life. One example of this was given by one set of workers in working in south Delhi, all of whom had migrated from Jharkhand as teenage girls to work in Delhi.



Some people tell lies and tell others that they work in office; they do not share they work as cleaners in homes. Girls from our Jharkhand often tell people that they work in office, and they carry a bag (on their way to work) to give others that impression.

The perspectives of the women workers cited above remind us of deeper issues that hurt the dignity of those in paid domestic work. The low and stigmatising status of domestic work does not necessarily stem from an employer who makes the workers work in degrading conditions, rather it emanates from the fact the value of this work in contemporary India is mediated exclusively by a discourse of caste and gender with its pre-modern roots. In other words, domestic work relations are marked by the lack of a language to articulate one’s place in society as a worker, which is further sustained and reproduced by the informal and unregulated nature of this work.

The Role of the State

Given that the language of caste, stigma and humiliation is predominant in domestic work relations in the present day, which is internalised by the workers themselves, we attempt to understand whether a legislation that confers rights as workers to domestic workers can help in reconfiguring this grim situation. The relationship between law and social change has been debated for a very long time. At the core of the debate lies the question of whether or not the legal machinery has a role to play in breaking down regressive social attitudes and norms. Regressive attitudes or norms may not undergo a change per se, but the law can offer instruments that can help engage with them. This can be better contextualised through an example.

A case in point is the Vishaka judgement of 1997, which laid down a set of guidelines for every workplace to be followed in matters of sexual harassment of women workers. In the absence of any comprehensive legislation until the promulgation of the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013; the Vishaka guidelines were the only recourse available. The judgement has been hailed as path breaking and progressive, for it marked a significant departure from the earlier discourse on sexual harassment in India. As Naina Kapur (2013), a lawyer who pioneered the Vishaka guidelines has observed, “Women’s experience of unwelcome sexual conduct was no longer a patronising moral transgression of her “modesty”, it was sexual harassment—a violation of her constitutional equality.” While till date the sexual harassment of working women continues to be a serious issue undermining gender equality at work, the judgement, by invoking a language of constitutional rights and equality has lent a progressive voice to the cause, hitherto absent in the legal lexicon.

We draw upon this  judgement to make a case for the role of the state in social change, as it reflects a progressive stance on issues that have been, and perhaps still are, seen through a hegemonic overtone, that stigmatises women. This piece of legislation reaffirms a faith in the role of the state machinery to be far ahead of the dominant, often retrogressive social discourse, norms and attitudes. The position of discourse in social transformation is best articulated by Fairclough and Wodak (1997) who observe that

It (discourse) is constitutive both in the sense that it helps to sustain and reproduce the social status quo, and in the sense that it contributes to transforming it. Since discourse is so socially consequential, it gives rise to important issues of power. Discursive practices may have major ideological effects – that is, they can help produce and reproduce unequal power relations between (for instance) social classes, women and men, and ethnic/cultural majorities and minorities through the ways in which they represent things and position people. (as cited in Wodak and Meyer, pp. 5-6)

A law for domestic workers may or may not change the material realities at their workplaces in a straightforward manner. Had labour laws been enforced so well, there would not have been struggles over minimum wages, working conditions and union busting, among others. We argue that a comprehensive national level legislation can possibly offer something more than just a set of protective measures—its principal strength lies in its ability to provide a language for domestic workers to identify themselves as workers, entitled to dignity and protection. A work that is currently articulated only through a language of stigma and shame, more than anything, needs a language of law to set the ground for altering work relations entrenched in age-old social inequalities. While urban poor across the board in this country work in extremely degrading conditions but what sets domestic workers apart, which is similar to other workers in caste-based occupations, is the symbolic degradation of their work and working atmosphere. A legislation specifically catering to this class of workers is pertinent to induce a language of change, even though it may not be sufficient by itself.  The present social norms, though not divorced from the past, allow domestic work, a prime form of everyday work to pass as non-work.

The reluctance of the state to acknowledge domestic workers as workers and its passive stance on the demand for a specific legislation foregrounds a dominant social bias against this group of workers. The state cannot wait for a popular discourse to materialise, rather it must go beyond the dominant discourse to bring about a language of law that is completely absent in the context of paid domestic work in India. The implications of the law in bringing about material change in wages and working conditions for domestic workers, among other benefits, is an open question, yet we believe that the symbolism of such a legislation and its transformative potential needs to be underscored. 


[All URLs accessed on 8 July 2015]

Devika, J, Nisha, P, & Rajasree, A (2011): “‘A Tactful Union’: Domestic Workers' Unionism, Politics and Citizenship in Kerala, India,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol 18, No 2, pp 185-215,

Kapur, Naina (2013): “Workplace Sexual Harassment: The Way Things Are,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 24, pp 27-29,

Mazumdar, Indrani, N Neetha & Indu Agnihotri (2013): “Migration and Gender in India,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 48 No 10, pp 54-64,

NCEUS (2007): Report on the Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganzied Secto, New Delhi: National Commission for Enterprizes in the Unorganised Sector,

Neetha, N (2008): “Regulating Domestic Work,” Economic and Political Weekly , Vol 43 No 37, pp 26-28,

Neetha, N, & Palriwala, Rajni (2010): “The Absence of State Law: Domestic Workers in India,” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law,  Vol 23 No 1, pp 97-­119,

Ray, Raka (2000): “Masculinity, Femininity And Servitude: Domestic Workers in Calcutta in the Late Twentieth Century,” Feminist Studies, Vol 26  No 3,

Ray, Raka, Qayum, Seemin (2010): Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity and Class in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Press Trust of India (2015): “India Doesn't Ratify ILO Convention on Domestic Workers: Bandaru Dattatreya,” Economic Times, 18 March,  

Wodak, Ruth, & Michael Meyer (2009) “Critical Discourse Analysis: History, Agenda, Theory and Methodology,” Methods of critical discourse analysis, R Wodak, & M Meyer (ed),. London: Sage.

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