Noida: Domestic workers in Bengaluru and Chennai would have to work in six low-paying households to earn the state minimum wage, found a study released on December 12.

More than half (55%) of the employers surveyed in Bengaluru believed that they paid their domestic workers "generously", while 51% in Chennai believed they paid "adequately" for services, found the study by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, an educational institution based in Bengaluru that researches equitable, sustainable and efficient transformation of Indian settlements.

The number of tasks--cleaning, food preparation and upkeep--performed by the workers and the time spent on these tasks determine the wages of the workers. Skill, reputation and experience do not count for much while setting wages, found the study. Recruitment is determined by trustworthiness, hardwork and punctuality while religion, caste and region of origin were "not important at all" to a majority of households recruiting domestic workers in both cities, found the study.

The three-part study surveyed 9,636 low-, medium- and high-income households in Bengaluru and Chennai. About 54% of them in Bengaluru hired domestic workers, while 32% of them in Chennai did so.

The most cited reason for hiring domestic workers was to free time for care/emotional work in both Bengaluru and Chennai, while "frees up time for paid work/am able to keep a job" was the third most cited reason, found the study.

Domestic work is classified as "informal" by the Periodic Labour Force Survey. There are 4.75 million domestic workers in India, as per official statistics. Only 10 of the 31 states and Union territories in India have included domestic workers in the schedule of Minimum Wages Act.

Household say wages are adequate

Wages for domestic workers in a household ranged from Rs 1,000 to Rs 10,000 in Chennai and Rs 2,000 to Rs 13,000 in Bengaluru, found the study.

The minimum wage for domestic workers in Karnataka ranges from Rs 12,241 to Rs 14,711, meaning that a worker would have to work in six of the lowest-paying households in Bengaluru to make the minimum wage. In Tamil Nadu, the minimum wage for domestic workers ranges from Rs 8,005 to Rs 9,418, which means that a domestic worker would have to work in at least eight households to earn the minimum wage.

A state-wide minimum wage is not appropriate for metropolitan cities such as Bengaluru and Chennai where the cost of living is higher, said the report. Hence a comparison with a city-state like Dehi is more appropriate. Workers in Bengaluru and Chennai would have to work in 7-14 houses to earn a wage on par with the minimum wage in Delhi.

Since the report is based on the employers' responses, it does not say how many hours a domestic worker would have to work to earn the minimum wage.

While 51% of all respondents in Chennai believed that they paid adequately, more low- and medium-income households believed that they were "generous". This means that the prospects of arguing for an increase in wages are low, according to the report.

Wages are determined by the number of hours worked, the tasks performed and the prevailing rates in the neighbourhood. Domestic work was considered to be "unskilled" by most households, found the report, and a worker's skills were not important while determining their wages. "However, skills were more important for a worker hired for care work like babysitting or elder care because they were interacting with a person," explained Antara Rai Chowdhury, one of the authors of the report.

IndiaSpend has written to the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments for comment on the report's findings on wages. We will update this story when they respond.

A majority of households in both cities did not give a bonus in 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to the study. Increments were granted in return for an increase in tasks or hours in both cities, and the amount was decided by the employers with almost none of the households discussing the increment with the workers.

Paid maternity leave not popular among employers

About 62% of the households in Chennai and 32% in Bengaluru said that they would prefer to discontinue the services of a domestic worker if she got pregnant and offer a lump sum payment. In Bengaluru, 68% of the households said they would give their help a weekly leave, whereas 80% of them in Chennai said they would do the same.

About 41% of households in Bengaluru and 37% of them in Chennai said that they would support the expenses of the treatment should one of their workers fall sick. However, more households in Chennai said that sick leaves should be unpaid (55%) than paid (44%). In Bengaluru, there was more support for paid sick leaves: 59% of households supported a paid leave, compared to 36% who said that the leaves should be unpaid.

The study did not ask households about pensions offered to retired domestic workers. Access to social security and protection against abuse and exploitation are among the proposals of the Draft National Policy for Domestic Workers of 2019.

IndiaSpend has written to the Ministry of Labour and Employment for comment on the status of the National Policy for Domestic Workers and the All India Survey of Domestic Workers, announced in November 2021, the results of which were expected in a year. This story will be updated when they respond.

Skills somewhat important for recruitment, do not determine wages

Bengaluru and Chennai showed differences in preferences while hiring workers. Caste, religion and region of origin (a proxy for language as per the authors) were not important while hiring a domestic worker for a majority of the households in Chennai. In Bengaluru, 12-14% households said that a domestic worker's caste was not important. A worker's religion was more important for households in Bengaluru than it was in Chennai.

"Domestic work is intimate work because you share your household space with the worker. So caste does come into play, and you will find that employers ask for the full name or last name of the workers before employing them," said Rosa Abraham, an economist at Azim Premji University's Centre for Sustainable Employment, Bengaluru.

A majority of respondents in Chennai were female (77%) while only 39% of the respondents in Bengaluru were female. However, the authors believe that the differences in responses of households was not determined by the gender of the respondent.

"We checked the responses in a city and found that within a city, male and female respondents gave similar responses, indicating that these differences were not dictated by gender of respondents," said Chowdhury.

Trustworthiness was ranked the most important by households in both cities, and skillfulness and being a quick learner were accorded more importance by households in Bengaluru than in Chennai. However, neither city considered skills or "quality of work" an important factor while determining the workers' wages.

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