Being fundamental to the maintenance of the household, domestic work is a quintessential form of reproductive labour. Domestic work in general, and paid domestic work in particular, are predominantly performed by women all over the world. Paid domestic work tends to be highly informalised and is performed by poorer and migrant women in working conditions that leave much to be desired. In the Indian context, there are highly varied estimates for the total number of domestic workers, ranging from 2.5 million to 90 million. There is a growing need for domestic workers in the metropolitan areas even as older forms of organisation of domestic work (particularly live-in work over a lifetime in an extended family household characterised by patron-client relations) are giving way to temporary live-out working arrangements in several nuclear households on a part-time contractual basis.
While accommodating paid domestic work within the framework of conventional employment law has been challenging, newer patterns in the organisation of paid domestic work (for instance in gated communities with thousands of households) has both produced newer forms of control and surveillance over domestic workers (through rules of resident welfare associations) but also opportunities for holding these associations responsible as establishments under the relevant laws. The mobilisation of domestic workers has also gathered strength in many parts of the country, particularly larger cities, leading to the formation of domestic workers’ unions. Although paid domestic work has been the subject of legislative activity for decades, starting in 1959 when private members’ Bills were introduced in the Indian Parliament and subsequently bills to recognise domestic work were also introduced in 1972, 1977, 1989 and 2008, none of them have seen the light of day. Domestic workers have instead been brought within the purview of minimum wage legislation in certain states and under laws applicable to the workers in the informal economy more generally, and are the subject of the National Policy for Domestic Workers. A private member’s Bill was once again introduced in 2016 around which several domestic workers unions have mobilized. The Laws of Social Reproduction project proposes to undertake field work in this sector to produce a socio-legal analysis of working conditions in representative sub-sectors of paid domestic work with a view to proposing high-impact law reform proposals.