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Maid to order


Urban India needs a deterrent against abusing domestic help: the full force of the law

The story of a 13-year-old girl working as a domestic help and allegedly mistreated by her employers, a doctor couple in Dwarka, Delhi, shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are countless such cases. According to the police, she was made to work full-time, deprived of food, verbally and physically abused and locked up when they vacationed in Thailand — until her empty cries were heard by the neighbours.

The larger, milder phenomenon is all around us: in India, we view paid domestic labour not as contractual service work but as abject servitude. There have been some scattershot attempts to provide greater security to domestic workers, government health insurance, etc, and some states have instituted minimum wages. And yet, by and large, domestic workers, lacking any political representation, remain hugely vulnerable. If she lives with a family, she is socially isolated; her obligations diffuse and stretched, her labour still unregulated by industry standards or welfare laws. The degree of deference or subservience required is extreme, compared to more business-like occupations in the same bracket. Just look at the girls — children themselves — playing nannies outside restaurants as their employers have a casino jameshallison nice evening out. Her only protection is still the market and her employer’s niceness. “She’s like one of the family,” goes the common boast, except of course, not. There are placement agencies that liaise between employers and workers, but most of them are dodgy — the professional one is the exception rather than the norm.

This Dwarka case is not the first in domestic help abuse — but it could be among the last, if it’s met with swift and exemplary punishment. The couple who employed this child have been charged under the Juvenile Justice Act, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act and the IPC. It’s only harshest punishment — and social stigma — that will deter other households. Long-embedded social injustices often need to be answered with strong and immediate legal action — the way casteist abuse has somewhat shrunk for fear of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and, of course, the political empowerment of SC/ STs. So the courts must use this case to instil a clear sense of consequences among the India that employs domestic help and thinks it can get away abusing them.

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