The relationship between law and social justice can unfold in two ways. The law can be the result of a social and political movement from below that demands greater equality for marginalised and persecuted groups. However, at times, the law itself can be the instrument for transformation, where legislators and the judiciary represent the best interests of society and help bring in progressive change that may upset intrenched privileges.
The stand-off last week between the residents of Mahagun Moderne — an upper-middle class condominium in Noida — and the 100-odd domestic “help” that work in the colony has highlighted the need for legislation that recognises “help” for what it is — hard labour — and provides them the basic rights due to other categories of workers.
Zohra Bibi, 27, has alleged her employers assaulted and confined her after they accused her of theft last Tuesday. It was while searching for Zohra Bibi that other domestic workers that live in a nearby slum entered Mahagun Moderne and a scuffle with security guards ensued. While complaints have been registered by both sides, the colony has barred entry to all workers. That domestic workers are largely from regions and communities that are at the bottom of economic and social indices is no secret.
After the scuffle, prejudice reared its head as many on social media as well as people from the colony complained of #MaldainNoida, and claimed that the domestic workers were illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The inequality of domestic workers’ circumstances is accentuated by the fact their workplace falls within the privacy of the homes of people that are invariably more privileged than they are. The lack of definition and delineation blurs the line between worker and employer, and is too often a feudal rather than professional relationship.
Thus far, there is no national law that governs domestic employment. Maharashtra has a domestic workers welfare board and in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka the category is part of rules and laws that deal with manual workers as a whole. The draft of the Domestic Workers Welfare Bill (2016), however, is ready. It provides for basic terms of employment like a minimum wage, hours of work, notice period and grounds for termination, as well as offences and penalties in the case of crimes and disputes like the one at Mahagun Moderne. Estimates of the number of domestic workers in the country vary from 3.9 to 10 million. No liberal society, or modern economy, can allow such a large number to remain outside the law as “help”.