Physician, first heal thyself

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The Minimum Wages Act on domestic servants should first be implemented on government officials

Madhu Purnima Kishwar 

Illustration: Anand Naorem

THE LATEST salvo to be fired by the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC) is that “domestic servants” should be brought under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act and other protective legislation, such as an eight-hour working day, with a “suitable” break, and a weekly rest day. It also calls for paid sick and annual leave, maternity benefits, insurance, and social security cover. In case of live-in domestics, the NAC wants to have legal provisions to ensure adequate food and a healthy work environment. One assumes that violators of the law would have to face legal consequences, including a prison term.

Most domestic servants work for very low wages and have no social security. This needs to change. The real question is: where is the machinery for implementing this law with a measure of integrity? The Inspector raj for implementing labour laws, hitherto let loose on business establishments and manufacturing units, has unleashed humongous corruption without ensuring statutory minimum wages or decent working conditions. More than laws, it is the forces of supply and demand that determine wages in any sector of the economy. As long as millions of impoverished artisans and farmers are forced to abandon their traditional occupations because of endemic poverty, their bargaining power in the cities will remain poor, no matter what laws we pass.

If the NAC is serious about testing the worth of this law, let it be first implemented in the homes of government officers, especially the IAS and Central Services. In my experience, lowest wages are paid to domestic servants in the homes of these worthies. The reason is two-fold:

1. Most government officers are provided highly subsidised accommodation with servant quarters. They are able to get domestic servants on very low wages using the excuse that the servant will get “free” accommodation, which is no more than a one-room tenement — that too at government cost. This enables the memsahibs to demand services from other family members of the hired person.

2. Domestic servants accept wages far below the market rate because they are led to believe that if they work sincerely the sahib will help them get a government job. I have seen senior officers using this bait to command an army of servants at pitiful wages not just for their own families but for numerous relatives.

Ensuring compliance from within will give the government the required experience to implement the Act

If the government is able to achieve success in ensuring compliance with the Minimum Wages Act and also ensure dignified treatment along with paid maternity leave, nutritious food, proper rest hours and other social security measures for domestic servants in the homes of government officers, MPs, MLAs and judges, it would have gained the required experience for implementing this law effectively on others. It would also provide an idea of the kind of implementation machinery and manpower such a law requires. Most important of all, by demonstrating that its officers can lead by example, the government would have earned the moral right to demand compliance by citizens at large. In order to ensure transparency, all the relevant data collected during surprise inspections and the punishments imposed on defaulters among its own officers should be posted on a special website. Many of us would gladly volunteer to join such surprise inspection teams.

If the government cannot ensure compliance at this small scale, this law will only add to the existing plethora of pioussounding draconian laws enacted ostensibly for protecting the rights of vulnerable groups that either end up as paper tigers or else become convenient weapons of extortion in the hands of unscrupulous officials. Laws are like guns. They require well-trained soldiers to fire them. If the same guns are put in the hands of delinquents or thugs, they become instruments of mayhem and tyranny.

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