Domestic Work and Migration

By Rohini Mitra and Priyansha Singh

The International Labour Organisation (2015) estimates that of the 67 million domestic workers (above the age of 15) across the globe, 80% are women. Domestic work is a phenomenon associated with rural-urban female migrants who represent one of the most vulnerable groups likely to be working as domestic labour. Media reports peg the number of domestic workers in India at 90 million and NGOs at about 20 million.

The increasing number of underage domestic workers is estimated to be 12.6 million, 86% of which are women.The Employment and Unemployment Survey (2004–2005) suggest that there are 4.2 million domestic workers in India i.e. 1% of total employed population. However, the National Sample Survey (2009–2010) estimates that only 0.8% of all employed persons are part of Section P: “activities of private households as employers”. The NSDC report (2013–17, 2017–22) expects the number of domestic workers in India to jump from 7.79 million in 2017 to 10.88 million by 2022.

Migration and Domestic Work

The International Labour Organisation defines domestic work as housework such as sweeping, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, cooking, caring of children and such other work which is carried out for an employer for remuneration’.

The official statistical measures in India define migration as unrelated to employment. In the case of women, the secondary reason for migration maybe employment but it remains undocumented in the official records. As a result, the Census of India for 1991, 2001, and 2011 records higher numbers of female migrants but essentially categorises them as associational migrants, whose mobility is tied to marriage.

The domestic work industry houses many different categories of migrant workers and allows for many different combinations of work. Some serve as live-in help and are typically long-distance migrants who perform a number of different domestic duties. Some perform particular duties such as cooking or cleaning and work in a number of different households over the course of one day.

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According to Prof. R.B. Bhagat of IIPS, Mumbai, paid domestic work has emerged as one of the most gender distinctive aspects of urban-ward labour migration in recent years. The question of female migration is a particularly fraught one given the nature of increased vulnerability encountered and the informal nature of the work that female migrants are often compelled to do.The March edition of the IMN newsletter — Gotta Keep On Movin’, has explored this in more detail.

Given the unreliability of the official data, micro-studies become key to recording the migration patterns and socio-demographic characteristic of migrant domestic workers. Akter and Deshingkar (2009) note that 20 million people, mostly women and girls migrate to cities like Mumbai and Delhi in search of domestic work from the eastern states of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Assam, and Mizoram.

A comprehensive female domestic workers survey from Delhi by Neetha (2004) distinguishes between live-in and live-out domestic workers and notes that the highest number of live-out migrant workers came from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu while the highest number of live-in domestic workers came from Jharkhand. Live-in domestic workers were unmarried while live-out domestic workers were married. Parallel academic literature/research confirms that tribal women often travel from their homes in Jharkhand and Orissa in search of jobs and primarily to earn money for the household.


Chaya H, a tribal woman from rural West Bengal who migrated to Kolkata early in her life considers her move the most positive thing in her life.
“Coming here to the city has been life-changing for me. I have spent almost half my life here and this is my home now. I do go back to my village, every few months, but I do not want to go back and live there”.

For Menoka M, who has migrated several times, the picture is more complicated.
“I was brought to Kolkata by my mother’s relatives when I was around 13–14. The issue was that there were so many daughters and they would have to all be married. There was no money for even having a wedding and so we were sent to work in the city. It would also reduce pressure on my parents….”

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One of the most difficult aspects of working life for these women is safety, protection, and dignity in the domestic sphere and many domestic workers have reported cases of abuse, torture, and assault. In July, 2017, reports of abuse emerged from the posh Mahagun Moderne Society in Delhi NCR. An upper middle class family, residing in the society, were found to have physically abused and imprisoned their household help, Zohra Bibi, a migrant worker living in one of the innumerable slums that usually crop up in the vicinity of such residencies.

Conflicting narratives eventually emerged, with Zohra Bibi claiming that she had been attacked and imprisoned when she had come to collect her severance pay and the family claiming that she had stolen from them. There was little doubt, however, that a gross violation of human rights had taken place and although media attention was extensively focused on the incident, several other such cases that occur day to day across the country rarely get as much coverage.

National Crime Record Bureau data tells us that the number of reported cases of violence against domestic workers was 3411 in 2010, going up to 3550 in 2012. Given the relative social and economic privilege at play here, it is also not difficult to imagine that many cases rarely see the light of day. Legal recourse for domestic workers is also limited.

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The Existing Regulatory Framework

There exists a lack of understanding about the domestic as a sphere of work at all and this impacts perceptions of skill, remuneration, and barriers to entry. Typically, domestic work is considered a low skill profession where those segmented at the bottom of the urban informal sector work.

Although some states have passed minimum wage laws pertaining to domestic work (Kerala and Karnataka, for instance), only Maharashtra, with the Domestic Worker’s Welfare Board Act of 2008 has institutionalised the workforce. Domestic workers in Maharashtra have a union (a product of a years-long struggle in the 1980s, documented extensively in the writings of Kiran Moghe), special identity cards, and are entitled to specific social security schemes of the State Welfare Board.

In Kolkata, West Bengal, a domestic workers union received government accreditation for the first time in 2018. The picture is far from as bright in other states of the country and virtually nothing exists at the national level although numerous Private Members’ Bills and a Bill drafted by the National Commission for Women have been tabled in both Houses of Parliament over the years.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that migrant domestic workers, like most other internal migrants, are often prevented from exercising their democratic right to vote, due to the circumstances of their mobility. Migration requires mobility whereas voting rights demand stability, thereby leading to a large scale, systematic, yet little researched nation-wide disenfranchisement.

Domestic work is a crucial source of employment for millions in the country, particularly for those from poorer, marginalised backgrounds, especially migrants and irregular immigrants.

The ILO 2016 estimate is that 1 in every 25 women workers, worldwide, is a domestic worker. The lack of a cohesive legislative framework not only further stigmatises the domestic as an arena of work but is a colossal disservice to the many who rely on it for their livelihood and work in increasingly precarious circumstances.

Across India, with the exception of certain states like Maharashtra, domestic workers wage a daily battle trying to provide for themselves and their families with little to no security net from the state. A comprehensive nation-wide rights based approach which prioritises the needs of female migrants in general, and domestic workers in particular, is now a necessity.We look forward to bringing you more insights and perspectives from the world of migration in the coming year. Until then please consider supporting up by making a donation.

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Thank you for reading.

IMN Team

*IMN is a venture of South East Migration (SEM) Foundation. The authors are researchers at SEM.

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