Print edition : July 29, 2011

The government health insurance scheme for workers in the unorganised sector will now cover domestic workers as well.

RUKHSANA is a migrant from Bihar. Her husband is a former rickshaw puller and she is a domestic worker. The couple has four children. They all live in a cramped, rented one-room tenement for which they pay Rs.1,500 every month. Rukhsana works in around four homes in the suburbs of the national capital as her husband is now unable to work since he underwent a major surgical procedure. She does not have a card that would allow her to avail herself of below poverty line (BPL) entitlements. She has been told by an agent that in order to be the owner of a ration card she will have to pay Rs.2,000. She does not have the money for that; even if she does, she is not confident that she will get the card after paying up. Her landlord is reluctant to certify that she is a tenant residing at his address for fear of getting into trouble.

Rukhsana has no proof of residence and hence no proof of identity. She has no idea how to get such proof without paying a bribe. She is basically not on the list of the poor in India. She is unaware that the government has extended its health insurance scheme for unorganised workers to domestic workers like her.

There are millions of domestic workers like Rukhsana who do not have any proof of identity and are not registered anywhere as domestic workers. Not having a BPL card also means that they will not be entitled to the government's ambitious flagship health insurance scheme for the unorganised sector, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), which has now been extended to cover registered domestic workers. The government decided this on June 23. It had earlier set up a task force to evolve a policy framework for domestic workers.

Domestic workers, says a government release, are unorganised and the sector remains unregulated and unprotected by labour laws. There is recognition that these workers come from vulnerable communities and backward areas and most of them are poor, illiterate and unskilled and do not understand the urban labour market. Many States have included domestic work as scheduled employment under their statutes, Minister of Labour and Employment Mallikarjun Kharge told Parliament in March this year. Six States had even fixed minimum wages for hourly, daily and monthly rates for domestic workers.

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2004-05, the total number of domestic workers in the country is 47.5 lakh, 30 lakh of whom are urban women. Workers in the unorganised sector constitute about 94 per cent of the total workforce. Domestic workers form the largest sector of female employment in urban areas. The government proposes to cover only 10 per cent of the domestic workers, that is 4.75 lakh of them, in the financial year 2011-12. State governments are required to identify domestic workers who have completed 18 years of age. This decision will exclude the lakhs of adolescent and minor children who are employed as domestic workers. According to Census 2001, the number of children employed as domestic helps was 185,505. The government has no plan to deal with this phenomenon. Neither has it specified how the 10 per cent will be selected for coverage under the RSBY and why it has opted to cover such a very small fraction. The government has also not clarified whether only those domestic workers who are in the BPL category will be entitled to benefits under the RSBY. The criterion of BPL is the underlying principle of the RSBY.

The scheme was launched on September 1, 2007, but became operational only from April 2008. It envisages providing a smart-card-based cashless health insurance cover of Rs.30,000 to BPL families (comprising up to five members). Smart card holders will be entitled to treatment in any empanelled hospital in the country. The funds for the insurance cover for domestic workers are to be drawn from the National Social Security Fund for unorganised sector workers. The Centre-State funding arrangement has been worked out, with the Centre bearing 75 per cent of the expenditure. The premium will also be shared by the Central and State governments in the ratio of 75:25, and in the case of Jammu and Kashmir and the States in north-eastern India, the ratio will be 90:10.

However, the benefit is not universal but exclusionary. To get coverage, it has been suggested that workers get an eligibility certificate from two of any four eligible institutions: employer, a residents welfare association, a registered trade union or the local police. What appears to be a rather populist move by the government, which also very recently announced the doubling of the honorarium of anganwadi workers and helpers under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), may not translate into much on the ground given the various conditions attached to it. Also, there is enough evidence to suggest that the existing system is far from perfect, with the beneficiaries facing a slew of problems in gaining access to their health entitlements under the scheme.

The RSBY is at present being implemented in 25 States/Union Territories. More than 2.34 crore smart cards have been issued as of May 31. The scheme was extended to building and other construction workers registered with welfare boards constituted under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996; street vendors; beedi workers; and such workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) who had worked for more than 15 days during the preceding financial year.

Interestingly, the National Commission for Women (NCW) had suggested a comprehensive piece of Central legislation for domestic workers. It drafted a Bill titled Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, 2010 highlighting the exploitative nature of domestic work, including the recent practice of trafficking in women and children, for domestic work, by spurious placement agencies. The NCW said the legislation was designed specifically to address the working conditions of domestic workers, including their registration. The emphasis in the draft Bill is on the regulation of placement agencies. The NCW noted that in the past few decades there had been a spurt in the demand for domestic workers, accompanied by a simultaneous spurt in the number of placement agencies. It also observed that in the absence of a Central Act, many initiatives of State governments to get domestic workers under the minimum wage notification were not getting realised.

The legislation provides for a Central Advisory Committee and State Advisory Committees and for district boards, whose main responsibility will be to carry out the registration of domestic workers, employers and service providers. The boards are to be empowered to grant relief in case of accidents, and provide financial assistance for the education of children, medical assistance for the treatment of the beneficiary and maternity benefits. They can arbitrate disputes through conciliation. The boards are also meant to implement schemes or any welfare measures framed by the Central board in consultation with State boards. The proposed legislation puts the onus of registration of the domestic worker on the employer, especially in cases where the worker is employed through an agency or employed full time.

It also stipulates the setting up of a Domestic Workers Welfare Fund, to be administered by the district boards, and has many progressive and positive features listed under working conditions for domestic workers, including a maximum of eight hours' work, food, sufficient periods of rest, and a weekly day off for full-time workers. Overtime rates have also been laid down. There is a section on offences and penalties as well. This comprehensive proposal is lying in cold storage even as a piece-meal benefit resembling health insurance has been doled out to domestic workers. One major challenge is the registration of domestic workers. With no law in place, the success of the RSBY seems to be contingent on the willingness of individual employers or agencies to get the domestic workers employed with them registered.

In fact, the government's task force had recommended that domestic workers be identified and registered by State Labour Departments and that domestic work be included in the Central list of scheduled employment vide a notification under the Minimum Wages Act. The proposed Act suggests that those State governments that have not fixed minimum wages for domestic work should fix rates of wages. It advocates a national policy for domestic workers and mandatory registration of all placement agencies and individuals providing placement, sourcing and recruitment services relating to domestic work under the Shops and Establishment Act.

A.K. Padmanabhan, the president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that the major problem in extending the RSBY to domestic workers was the definition of BPL. He said that the government was trying to reduce the number of people coming under BPL coverage. This was evident in the latest methodology adopted for the BPL census, which had several exclusionary criteria. He said that while construction workers would benefit as a whole as they had welfare boards, the exclusionary BPL criteria would be applied to domestic workers. If 94 per cent of the workforce is in the unorganised sector as per the admissions of the Labour Minister at the ILO conference [in June], then why can the benefit of health insurance not be extended to all? asked Padmanabhan. He also said that the maximum insurance cover of Rs 30,000 would barely cover the cost of hospitalisation of a single individual in a family of five.

Subhash Bhatnagar, who represents the National Campaign Committee for Unorganised Workers and has been working with the unorganised sector for many years now, said that the main problem with the RSBY was that workers were unaware of it. He said that in order to avail themselves of the benefit, workers had to be on some database. No one is even asking how domestic workers will be registered and with whom. A union cannot certify this. We know of cases where hospitals have declined to treat workers for small ailments, he said.

ILO Conference

The 100th Session of the International Conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted a unique convention in Geneva this June titled the Domestic Workers Convention 2011, which called upon members to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers. The conference reiterated the importance of a minimum social protection floor, or SPF (a minimum level of social security), for workers, given the global economic slowdown and the deleterious effects of globalisation. ILO Director-General Juan Somavia exhorted member-nations to provide for a fiscally sustainable social protection to the eight out of 10 people who lack any form of social security in the world today, starting with a basic floor of universal social protection. Recognising the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, the simultaneous undervaluation of domestic work, and the large proportion of domestic workers in the national workforce of developing countries, the convention laid down a comprehensive set of rights and entitlements that included issues of remuneration and working conditions.

In his address to the conference on June 13, Labour Minister Kharge welcomed the Director-General's report on A New Era of Social Justice and highlighted India's massive campaign to provide basic health care facilities to workers in the unorganised sector through its ambitious and successfully running flagship programme RSBY. He, however, clarified that while the Indian government endorsed the concept of an SPF, each country should decide the level of its SPF as a uniform one could not be prescribed for all countries, and there should not be any fixed timelines for implementing SPF measures.

Such measures, he said, should be closely linked to the country's financial resources, the size of its informal sector, employment strategies and other social policies. Kharge went on to say that the Indian government was moving from scheme-based to rights-based social security entitlements. He forgot to mention that in India many of these rights were not uniform in their reach and the entitlements were contingent on people being identified as poor by the government. While the Indian government adopted the convention, it remains to be seen whether it ratifies it within the given time frame and legislates for the same accordingly. With a comprehensive draft already present, there is not much the government needs to do on this front.

However, to expect that a health insurance scheme for domestic workers will work in the absence of any basic regulatory framework for this sector seems far-fetched. For the Rukhsanas of this world, it might take another decade for any kind of social welfare measure to trickle down to them.

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