The July-12 agitation and stone pelting by a mob in Noida’s Mahagun Moderne residential society over the alleged beating up of a 26-year-old domestic help by her employers, who in turn have accused her of stealing and denied the manhandling, puts the spotlight on a crisis long brewing close to our most private spaces — our homes. Most of the protesters were reportedly friends and neighbours of the maid, including many who themselves worked as domestic help. The confrontation was dramatic and shocking, exposing the fault lines of class which characterise urban India.
As the investigations in the above case are underway, the incident reveals a simmering cauldron of tensions that characterise ‘master-servant’ relations in India. In the absence of strong laws concerning their work and welfare, domestic workers in India remain in a vulnerable position. The estimates of their number varies greatly. According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 3-10 million people in India are employed as domestic help. Up to 90 per cent of this workforce are women and children, as per National Domestic Workers Movement.
In 2008, the government has enacted the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act to provide social security benefits, including life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits and old age protection to the workers in the unorganised sector, including domestic workers. However, as scholars Rajni Palriwala and N Neetha write, the specific nature of domestic workers, their workplaces and their employment relations are not dealt with under existing laws and concepts. Domestic workers remain vulnerable to severe exploitation and abuse in their day-to-day work. Lack of a complaint mechanism and lack of awareness means that violations are common even in the states that have mandated a fixed minimum wage for domestic workers — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand.
Data released by the Women and Child Development Ministry in February 2014 revealed that there were 3,564 cases of alleged violence against domestic workers reported in 2012, up slightly from 3,517 in 2011 and 3,422 in 2010. While they can approach the police, there are no legal redressal channels if their salary or mandatory days offs are denied, nowhere to complain or register grievances if they are subjected to false allegations, violence or sexual harassment. A draft National Policy for Domestic workers, first formulated in 2011, is currently under consideration by the government, which, in a first, will provide a legal definition to domestic workers. Its salient features include providing them a right to have minimum wages, stipulated work hours, weekly offs, access to social security and protection from abuse, harassment, violence. It also formally provides them the right to form unions and associations for increased bargaining power with the employers and the right to register as workers with their state’s labour department. Placement agencies would also be regulated under this act. Of course, unless such a law also carries punitive repercussions for those who violate it, the policies would remain toothless. Similar bills had been introduced in the Parliament starting in 1959 and thereafter in 1972 and 1977, but each time they were allowed to lapse.
Complex and troubled relations often characterise the ‘help’ and those whom they serve. To begin with, housework itself is grossly undervalued. Despite being paid, it is not considered ‘proper’ work because it has traditionally been provided for free by the women of the households and also looked down upon — especially the task of cleaning. Additionally, these relations remain shot with class and caste distinctions, which still manifest towards the domestic help via deeply entrenched practices, determining which cup she may drink in, which surface she may sit on and how she would address the employer’s family — even the young children. “… when it comes to domestic help, many progressive people have a blind spot,” writes Tripti Lahiri, author of Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes. It is a learned, deeply ingrained behaviour that circumvents their usual codes of treatment of others.
The warning of the Noida incident, regardless of who turns out to be at fault, should be a sobering one. Only the existence of proper redressal mechanisms can prevent violent eruptions. We also need to introspect why it is easier for even the educated among us to perpetuate a hierarchy which sustains on the passive exploitation of a group of people, who are frequently unable to assert themselves for dignity and better working conditions because the system, legally and socially, marginalises against them. Above all, the draft National Policy for Domestic workers languishing in the Parliament for several years needs to be made into a law without further ado.
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