A maid-in-India problem

How did help go from being a servant to even worse a slave?


adity Srivastava | June 19, 2012

It’s been over a week now that my domestic help one day decided not work for me. It came unexpected. Perhaps my questioning her on coming late one day did not go down well with her. After making her anger evident on the dishes she cleaned, scowling at me all the while, she just couldn’t take it anymore and stormed out of my house without a goodbye. Even though appalled at the half-mopped floor, the bourgeois in me didn’t allow me to stop her. 

That was the end of her woes and the beginning of mine. I asked, requested and implored many domestic helps in the vicinity to work at my place. They all agreed but never came. It took me some time to realise that my previous maid had issued a whip to them and all others – not to work at my place. Helpless and ostracised, I am almost losing the battle of striking a balance between the household chores and office work.

I wonder what if the anger that seethes in me would find a vent. Would I want to torture my previous maid? No way. In fact, I cannot still imagine who are the people who do that to their domestic helps. But my failing imagination is no deterrent to the perpetrators of such crimes.

A couple of months ago, the police arrested a doctor couple in New Delhi. They were charged with confining, starving and torturing their 13-year-old domestic help at their house in Dwarka. They had locked up the girl while they vacationed in Thailand in March. They even used to mentally and physically torture her. The starving girl was finally rescued after she raised an alarm.

Another incident, which was also happened in the capital, was of a teenage help who was tortured, sodomised and raped. The girl was first raped by the employer’s son. His callous mother and sister knew about it but kept mum. The teenager was allegedly tortured also by her employer’s daughter also. During a medical examination, burn marks were found on the girl's right hand, which were allegedly made by the son.

The above incidents are just a peep into the larger picture of exploitation of helps in our society. Incidents have been reported of housemaids being punished by their employers over petty issues. They are scalded, brutally beaten up and abused both physically and mentally. Sadly, this being an urorganised sector and domestic work largely remaining “undeclared”, law is not on their side.

According to data from the ministry of labour and employment, the number of domestic workers in India vary from 4.75 million (Employment and Unemployment National Sample Survey 61st round, 2004-5) to 6.4 million (Census 2001). The data might be under-reported as domestic work is yet to be treated as ‘real’ work at many places, concede both NSS as well as census reports. This is one of the major reasons as to why domestic work largely remains ‘undeclared’.

For decades, groups like the National Domestic Workers’ Movement have campaigned for recognition of domestic work as a form of labour. The diligence and persistence of such groups has resulted in some states initiating legislation. For instance, Delhi is ready with its own domestic help draft bill. The draft of the Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill, 2012, which would be presented before the assembly in February 2013, provides that unregistered agencies will not be allowed to provide domestic helps in the city. Both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have included domestic workers in the legal provisions for minimum wage. Tamil Nadu has included domestic work in the Manual Labour Act and has also set up the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board. Kerala has taken some steps in this direction, as have Bihar and Rajasthan. The central government has included domestic workers in provisions under the Unorganised Sector Workers' Social Security Act that was passed in January 2010. Maharashtra has also passed its own law.

Above all, the draft national policy for domestic workers, the first of its kind in India, is ready to go to the cabinet for its approval. This policy entitles domestic workers, otherwise commonly called “servants”, to minimum wages, defined work hours, paid annual and sick leave, maternity benefits and the right to join or form trade unions.

But laws serve little purpose in the absence of clear stats and a clarity of purpose among the policymakers. There has been considerable documentation of the abuse young girls, in particular, suffer at the hands of their employers.

What is worrisome is these people (who torture their helps) act perfectly normal in their social circles. They work in air-conditioned offices and are respected. They attend parties and other social gatherings in their polished selves where one can barely sense their villainous sides. Back home these people are a source of untold miseries to their susceptible domestic helps. The question whether stringent laws can change their minds remains unanswered. People cannot be forced to behave in the right way with someone who takes care of their home while they are away. It is a matter of their attitude towards their help. We have to realise that the person is our help and not servant. This is what needs to change.

When my help decided against working at my place, it was well within her rights to do so. She thought she was right and decided to teach me a lesson, which I am learning the hard way. But this debate is more about wrongs than rights. Let’s be fair with them. Let’s not hurt/wrong them.



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