On the morning of July 30, the residents of an upscale condominium in Gurgaon were woken up by domestic workers protesting for higher wages. “All of us stayed indoors. After the Noida incident, it’s better to be safe,” remarked one of them. The incident at Mahagun Moderne last month, however, is not sufficient to explain this fear. After all, no one was severely injured and given the provocation — the alleged kidnapping and assault of a young female domestic worker — the conflict in the Noida housing society was a relatively minor one.
What the Noida stand-off did bring to the fore — in drawing room discussions, on social media and in the public discourse at large — is the deep discomfort of India’s urban middle- and upper-middle class with confronting the moral implications of an exploitative system that underpins our lives and lifestyles.
There is, of course, no national legislation that protects the rights of domestic workers. The draft Domestic Workers Welfare Bill (2016) is just the latest version of a proposed law to provide basic rights and protections to the millions who are engaged as “help” across the country. It would be easy to blame the lethargy of the legislature and the political class for the fact that the law has not been passed. However, the very structure — both social and economic — of domestic labour and the way it underpins entitlement and inequality makes even the slightest move towards formalisation a virtual impossibility.
The politically incorrect term for domestic workers, is unfortunately, a much more accurate representation of their de facto position than euphemisms like “help”. “Servants” do exactly what the term suggests, and they are forced to do so because of the hierarchies at play in Indian society. By and large, domestic help come from regions, castes and communities at the margins — broad as they are — and the nature of their employment only sharpens their disadvantage. Many, if not most of them, are women. Their workplace is in the privacy of homes, shielded by the mundane, conservative darkness of domesticity. Their employers, in addition to the power that comes from providing a livelihood, also enjoy the impunity of being relatively privileged in a poor country.
For a household economy, particularly among the wealthy, the “help” provided by domestic labour is remunerated at prices far less than its actual value. This is not just because people are miserly or inherently averse to paying for services rendered.
What would constitute a fair wage for people who, by cooking, cleaning, rearing children and caring for the elderly, provide the conditions of possibility for both partners in a domestic relationship to work and augment the family income? What is the price of the leisure and freedom that being freed from the demands of hard labour at home afford? Even salaries calculated at minimum wage rates for unskilled labour far exceed what most “help” are paid. That domestic work — ranging from cleaning to cooking and even moulding the lives of the next generation — is treated as unskilled labour speaks volumes. Any rational assessment of wages that goes beyond the fact that a large pool of poor means that the labour supply often exceeds demand, will make domestic help economically unviable. For the upper-middle class, especially working professionals, their lives would undergo too dramatic a change without the subsidised “help” that the poverty of others affords them.
In the immediate aftermath of the Mahagun Moderne incident, the stark correlation between the dependence on labour on the one hand, and the bigotry towards those that provide it, became apparent. The workers in the society were called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (subsequent reports suggest that the allegation is false), a slum near the colony was “cleared” by authorities, and on social media, #MaldaInNoida — an allusion to communal tension in West Bengal — was used to give disturbing overtones to a conflict in a housing society.
In the discussions with friends, family and colleagues, a large part of the conversations were defensive platitudes centred around our own benevolence: People patted each other on the back because the “help” is given a day off and paid vacations — basic entitlements in our own jobs. Or expressed shock and disgust at the people we know who still have separate food or utensils for those that cook and clean for them.
The common thread between both sets of reactions is the refusal to confront the ethical consequences of the advantages we accrue from domestic labour and the blindness of our complicity in their exploitation.
The law of the land reflects the discourse and the sentiments of the middle class and the elite. Even as the Domestic Workers Bill lies by the wayside, the “help” are routinely criminalised — the police suggest they be verified and they are often the first suspects in cases of crime. Possible theft and violence by workers is a deep concern. That they have the same rights and dignity as their employers is too costly a notion to contemplate.
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