Every day more than 90m domestic workers oil the wheels of contemporary India. They clean, fetch, tend, serve and make it possible for many upwardly mobile women to pursue their careers without worrying about domestic chores. Yet this work is referred to as the “informal sector” as if it were scarcely work at all.
Maids are excluded from labour laws. The exclusion is just a short distance to abuse: long hours, bad pay, inhuman treatment, physical and sexual harassment. The case of actor Shiney Ahuja, who was arrested for allegedly raping his domestic help, made headlines because of his celebrity status. But in most cases, what happens in the neighbour”s house often stays there.
“From not getting paid to being kept hungry for two days for breaking a cup, the abuse of maids can take many forms,” says Jeanne Devos, the Belgian nun who formed the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) 25 years ago. It gets three to four such cases a week from across India. But apart from organizing demonstrations outside employers” homes or on the streets, there is little the NDWM can do. “They are not even recognized as workers, so there is no legal protection for them under labour laws. They can only go to a criminal court,” says Devos.
The NDWM has been battling to change that status for years and has managed a few significant victories. Seven states – the four southern ones and Rajasthan, Bihar and Maharashtra – have passed legislation to protect domestic workers. But “it hasn”t been implemented as yet. That”ll take time,” says Devos. She can take comfort from news that the National Commission for Women (NCW) is working on a draft law to provide social security to domestic workers with the employer making a monetary contribution over and above the salary. “The draft is in the final stages and will be sent to the labour ministry in two months,” says an NCW official.
But will legislation help Indians see their maids as deserving of respect and basic rights? For that, attitudes must change, says filmmaker Nishtha Jain, whose documentary Lakshmi and Me examines the problems faced by domestic workers. “They are working class women, but their work gets no respect,” says Jain. The terminology used to describe them – naukrani, servant, maid – is telling. But the low wages shock Jain the most. “In most posh colonies of Mumbai, the rate is Rs 300 per chore. Is that fair for a mountain of clothes or dishes?” she asks.
Of course, there is the minority who treat their domestics well, but that”s mostly because they don”t want to be left to clean up after themselves. Activists say the priority must be to crack down on employment agencies that are trafficking minor girls into metros for domestic work.
“The child labour law provides for punishment but enforcement is lax,” says Rishikant, who works with anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini. Last year, it rescued three girls who were confined to a Faridabad house for two years and beaten. They say a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. If so, there are plenty of domestic workers to confirm that India”s record is shameful. They won”t, though: they are too scared of losing their jobs.