Sexual Harassment of Domestic Workers at their Workplaces

By PRIA Gender (Participatory Research In Asia)

    Sexual Harassment of Domestic Workers at their Workplaces

    About the Author

    PRIA Gender (Participatory Research In Asia)
    PRIA Team
    New Delhi, IN
    3 Articles Published
    PRIA Gender (Participatory Research In Asia)

    Established in 1982, PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) is a global centre for participatory research and training based in New Delhi. PRIA’s work is focused on empowerment of the excluded through capacity building, knowledge building and policy advocacy. Over almost four decades, PRIA has promoted ‘participation as empowerment’, capacity building of community organisations, and people’s participation in governance. Initiatives are undertaken in the overall perspective of ‘making democracy work for all’ – in the political system; democratic culture in families, communities, and society; and participatory democracy with active citizenship. 

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    Project Summary

    Domestic work in India is a large sector of employment, especially for women. According to International Labour Office (ILO), there are currently 52 million people employed as domestic workers worldwide. Out of these, 83% are women. Although they make up one of the world’s most long-standing and widespread workforces, domestic workers are frequently overworked, underpaid, and unprotected.

    The invisible and privatized nature of domestic work also makes domestic workers vulnerable to sexual harassment at the workplace (SHW). A 2012 survey on sexual harassment at the workplace conducted by Oxfam India and the Social and Rural Research Institute found that daily wage labourers, domestic workers and women working in small-scale manufacturing units are the most affected by SHW.

    PRIA, along with the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF), has been working with domestic workers in Gurgaon, Faridabad and South Delhi to collectivize them and build their capacities around the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. The work has also been focusing on strengthening redressal mechanisms and preventive measures, through working closely with District Administration, unions and civil society organizations to mainstream the issues of sexual harassment of domestic workers.

    To bring visibility to this issue, PRIA and MFF have been gathering qualitative and quantitative evidence to capture the extent of this problem; how domestic workers deal with it, their awareness about redressal mechanisms and the readiness of redressal mechanisms to effectively address this issue. As a part of this study, in June, 2018, MFF and PRIA conducted a rapid survey with 291 domestic workers in Gurgaon, Faridabad and South Delhi. This report brings out the findings of the survey and some experiences of workplace sexual harassment of domestic workers. 

     Project Context

    “I used to work in a house which had a huge family. I thought that it would be safe to work there. But whenever there was no one around, the old grandfather of the family would find a pretext to get closer to me and touch me. I knew that even if I told someone, no one would believe me.” – Amina (name changed), a domestic worker in Gurgaon.

    Harsh working conditions leave domestic workers vulnerable to sexual harassment at their workplaces. Stories like that of Amina are often everyday realities of domestic workers’ work lives. Already disadvantaged by their gender, class and caste status, domestic workers are often at the receiving end of sexual abuse. This is further aggravated because of their migrant status. Migrants lack the necessary community support in a situation of duress and the clout and resources for social action. They are often illiterate and unaware of the law, and the impending threat of loss of employment and the stigma associated deters them from reporting violence. Therefore, the isolated and highly privatized nature of their workplaces and their isolation as migrant women workers puts them at high risk of sexual abuse.

    Considering the unorganised nature of domestic work, it is important to understand what constitutes a ‘workplace’ for domestic workers. As per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013, a workplace is defined as “any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such a journey” (Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2015). The definition also extends to the workplaces of informal sector women workers to include a dwelling place or house and workplaces, such as residential complexes and houses, of unorganized sector women workers.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Background and Aim

    PRIA and the Martha Farrell Foundation have been working with domestic workers in districts of Gurgaon and Faridabad in Haryana and districts of South Delhi for the past two years. Their work attempts to create safe and dignified workplaces for domestic workers by collectivizing and sensitizing them about sexual harassment at workplaces. It also builds their capacities so that they can lobby and advocate with the state and other stakeholders to strengthen redressal mechanisms and preventive measures to eliminate workplace sexual harassment.

    The work also focusses on strengthening the functioning of Local Committees (LCs) in the aforementioned three districts to respond effectively to the grievances of domestic workers. In addition, other stakeholders like the Resident Welfare Associations, placement agencies and other intermediaries like civil society groups, media, etc. are also being engaged and sensitized on the issue. A number of workshops and interface events are being organized to enhance their understanding of the situation and issues related to sexual harassment in informal workplaces.

    The aim now is to build a robust coalition of domestic workers based on the experience gained and lessons harvested from our work so far. This coalition will also include other civil society organizations, actors from the state, media and academia. These efforts will be scaled up to have an impact on national level policy advocacy and reforms. Also, these experiences will be documented in a manner so that critical knowledge can be built around the issue of sexual harassment of domestic workers and interventions can be replicated in other parts of the country to ensure sustainability of action.

    Research Method and Partial Results

    With its commitment towards building essential and critical knowledge around the issue of sexual harassment of domestic workers, MFF and PRIA have been gathering data for the past year through various qualitative and quantitative methods. This study has been documenting the experiences of domestic workers, how they are affected by sexual harassment at the workplace and its impact on their lives. It has also been documenting the response of the LCs and other stakeholders (like RWAs and placement agencies) in the three districts to analyze the efficacy of redressal and preventive mechanisms and the gaps and loopholes in the implementation of the SHW Act 2013.

    While quantitative data were gathered through surveys, qualitative data are being gathered through participatory research methods to document the safety or unsafety of domestic workers at their workplaces. Participatory safety assessments (PSAs) are also being conducted with the domestic workers in the three districts to map their workplaces (or the ‘world of their work’) and how they experience safety or unsafety in their multiple workplaces. This evidence, which is generated by the domestic workers themselves, is then shared by them with the LCs or other stakeholders to demand appropriate action to ensure safe and dignified workplaces for themselves. In the process, domestic workers co-create this knowledge and also use it to effectively lobby and advocate for their safety and welfare.

    Quantitative Data Collection and Results

    A rapid survey was conducted with 291 domestic workers in Harijan Basti, Gurgaon, Lal Kuan and Nehru Nagar in South Delhi and Mewala Maharajpur in Faridabad. The survey sought responses from domestic workers on their perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace, how they deal with it and how they support fellow domestic workers when they experience sexual harassment at a workplace. The survey also attempted to find out how aware domestic workers are about redressal mechanisms like LCs and their readiness for taking punitive action when they are sexually harassed at a workplace.

    While conducting the survey, the survey team also recorded reactions and testimonies of the domestic workers. Some of them have been shared below along with the quantitative results from the survey.

    1. Out of the 291 domestic workers surveyed, 84 (29%) of them admitted to being sexually harassed at the workplace.
    2. Seven forms of sexual harassment at a workplace were stated in the survey, which included physical, verbal, non-verbal and visual forms. When asked to recognize these forms of SHW, the domestic workers:
      • Reported stalking as the most recognized form of SHW, with 65.6% of the respondents having recognized it.
      • This was followed by lewd gestures and whistling, with 61.8% of the respondents recognizing it. A domestic worker in Harijan Basti in Gurgaon said, “When we leave our homes to go to work, we are often harassed by drivers on our way. They comment on us and sometimes even try to touch us.” This reiterates the point that a domestic worker’s workplace is highly fragmented and scattered and therefore, she is vulnerable to sexual harassment in multiple locations from multiple people.
      • Sending SMSes or WatsApp messages with sexual innuendos was recognized by 52% of the total respondents. This establishes how mobile, internet technology and social media potentially have become a very important tool for abetting SHW and now form a crucial part of a domestic worker’s workplace or ‘World of Work’.
      • 49% of the respondents also recognized quid-pro-quo situations and some even said, “We have never faced it but we have heard that others like us have faced it”.
    3. Also, 40% of the respondents recognized all the seven forms of SHW listed in the survey. Thirty-five percent of them recognized more than three forms of SHW, 16% of them recognized two or less than two forms of SHW and only 8% responded with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘none of the above’. This clearly establishes that while most respondents are aware about SHW, they are afraid of admitting that they have faced it. Domestic workers face precarious financial conditions, have very low job security and lack the necessary social and political support in the cities that they have migrated to. In face of such vulnerability, they are scared to speak against sexual harassment at workplaces and also are skeptical about admitting it if they have faced it.
    4. The rapid survey also sought responses from the domestic workers on how they reacted when they faced sexual harassment at the workplace. Out of the 84 domestic workers that admitted to being sexually harassed at the workplace:
      • 19% of them said that they chose to ignore the incident. Some of them said, “We have no other option but to ignore. Whom will we complain to and who will listen to us?”
      • 15% of them spoke to someone else about it (mostly friends or coworkers). Some of them also admitted that they cannot share such instances with their husbands or families, who will chastise them and deter them from working outside the home. Also, shame and stigma associated with this issue also deters them from talking to their families about it. This further thins their support system, where they are unable to speak openly to their partners and immediate families or seek their support.
      • Only 2 (2.3%) of the respondents said that they quit their jobs when they were sexually harassed. This yet again brings out the extremely vulnerable situation of domestic workers; their household poverty and lack of alternative livelihood options prevents them from quitting an exploitative job, making them even more susceptible to sexual harassment at the workplace.
      • 13% of them said that they changed their route to work. A domestic worker in Nehru Nagar said, “We have a huge forest area behind our slum. It is a very desolate area and often men and young boys gather there to drink and smoke. There have also been rape cases in that forest. We have stopped taking that route to work and never let our daughters go to school from that route. We will take the longer route to work but not that route.”
      • Only one of them complained in the building or housing complex that they were working in when they were sexually harassed. This establishes that Resident Welfare Associations are not seen as approachable by the domestic workers; RWAs lack the necessary awareness, sensitivity and skills to effectively deal with this issue.
      • 17 (20%) of the respondents complained to the police, but when probed further, they could not share whether there were any outcomes of the police complaint. But they also said that police often hassle or ignore them.
      • 13% of them reacted on the spot, slapped or shouted at the harasser or sought the help of a passerby. Many of them prefer to ‘take things in their own hands’, rather than seeking the support of the police, family or community. While they distrust the police, they are unwilling to open up to their families or communities.
      • None of them complained to the LCs, which helps establish that none of them knew about the LCs. On International Domestic Workers’ Day in 2017, MFF facilitated a meeting between the domestic workers from Harijan Basti and the Chairperson of LC in Gurgaon. This was the first time that the LC and the domestic workers had met each other; also the Chairperson of the LC was unaware of the responsibility of the LC towards informal sector women workers, had not received any complaints from them or reached out to them.
      • 5% of respondents chose multiple options but the ones who chose multiple options said that even if they spoke to someone, they had to change their route or to ignore the incident.
    5. Domestic Workers were also asked how they will react if they see someone else being sexually harassed at the workplace. Their responses are as follows:
      • 18% of them said that they will ask that person to ignore the incident. Also, 23.3% of them said that they will speak to the person but will ask her to ignore the situation and not take any action. A domestic worker in Lal Kuan said, “We have no bonding in our community. People come out to watch the ‘tamasha’ (spectacle) but no one helps you in your problem. Everyone is very indifferent.” Very often, due to a lack of community support, domestic workers are forced to ignore SHW, which also leads them to ignore the predicament of others.
      • 6% of them said that they will speak to the person being harassed or ask them to speak to someone else.
      • Only 1.3% of them said that they will ask that person to quit the job.
      • 4% of them said that they will ask that person to change her route.
      • 5% of respondents said that they will ask the person being harassed to complain at the building or home where she is working and 11% of them said that they will support that person in filing a police complaint. About 18.5% of respondents said that they will support the person is making a complaint with both the building and police. These responses were most apparent in communities like Lal Kuan, which are largely inhabited by generational migrants in which community bonding and networks have strengthened over the years. A domestic worker in Lal Kuan said that if something like this happens, “they will go together to the police and file a complaint”. On the other hand, communities like Harijan Basti, which are inhabited by fresh and moving migrants, hardly consider complaining to the police or the RWA as an option. Even if redressal mechanisms are strengthened, their efficacy cannot be realized without community mobilization. Both community and family support is crucial for approaching the police or any other authority to build pressure on them for necessary action.
      • None of the domestic workers mentioned the LC as a way of recourse for sexual harassment at the workplace.
    6. Domestic Workers from Nehru Nagar also said that to avoid sexual harassment at workplace, “they avoid working in places that are far away” and “they prefer to work in places near their homes”. This reduces their commute time and susceptibility to workplace sexual harassment i.e. it shrinks their ‘World of Work’.
    7. Domestic Workers in both Lal Kuan and Nehru Nagar said that they do not work in houses that are rented by young bachelors or ‘gents’. They fear rape and sexual assault in such households and therefore prefer to work in ‘family households’. They also choose their working hours according to the availability of the women of the household i.e. they go to work when the women of that household are present. The presence of women family members at their workplaces makes them feel more secure and they reckoned that “men don’t dare to act funny in the presence of their women”.

    The findings of the rapid survey clearly establish that domestic workers are affected by sexual harassment at the workplace on a regular basis and lack the necessary support and redressal mechanisms to deal with it. It also shows that advocacy with LCs, district administrations, state governments and RWAs is urgently needed, so that they can be galvanized into action and perform their roles and responsibilities as per the SHW Act 2013.

    The anecdotes shared by the domestic workers also bring out how they lack support in their own communities and families when they are faced with this issue. While governance institutions have to be strengthened, community sensitization and mobilization will also be imperative to ensure that domestic workers have support from every sphere and class, caste and gender barriers can be overcome to generate collective action for change.


    Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD), Government of India. (2015). Handbook on Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 for employers/ institutions/ organizations/ Internal Complaints Committees/ Local Complaints Committees:

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    PRIA Gender Team. (2020, October 2). Sexual harassment of domestic workers at their workplaces.  Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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