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Kaam ki Kadar:The Ill-Treatment of Domestic Workers in Indian Households

by Aadya Narain

Domestic workers operate in an unregulated, over-saturated sector, subjected to frequent exploitation.  The historical devaluation of domestic labor in patriarchal societies has resulted in these abject working conditions. This is exacerbated by the caste and class-based discrimination pervading these employer-employee relationships and resulting in complicity with or active participation in inhumane practices. The privilege and complicity of the entire class of employers ensure a lack of repercussions for this poor treatment of their employees. This paper aims to demonstrate that these untenable working conditions, the lack of redressal mechanisms for employees, and the unacceptable power dynamics placing employees at the top of an immobile social pyramid, effectively ensure that these individuals are not accorded even the basic dignity due all workers and their work.

According to the International Labor Organization, domestic workers comprise a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment, and their work includes tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, washing, and ironing clothes, taking care of children, elderly or sick members of the family, gardening, guarding the house, chauffeuring, even taking care of household pets. Currently, there are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide, and this number is increasing steadily in developed and developing countries. In India alone, over 50 million people are employed as domestic help across the country, with women constituting over 75% of this sector, and nearly 200,000 minors employed as well. work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the scope of labour legislation, thus making them among the most vulnerable groups of workers. Further, the massive influx of supply, constantly replenished by migration from villages into cities in search of work, far outstrips the demand, as is the trend with most unskilled labor, and ensures domestic workers have next to no leverage or bargaining power. The sector is thus informal, unregulated, and leaves these workers completely defenseless against the whims of their employers, Indian households.

The non-recognition of the home as a workplace is identified as a critical factor connected to the invisibility of domestic work. This is firstly an outcome of the capitalistic understanding of any work that does not produce a tangible or quantifiable good or service which can be uniformly monetized as trivial. Their essential contribution to the well-being and coveted productivity of ‘skilled’ workers in the economy is thus conveniently negated. The devaluation is further connected to the historical delegation of all domestic work to women of the household. Its illegitimacy serves to institutionalize the idea that women do not and have not contributed indispensably to the progress of society. Despite the myriad feminist critiques of the idea of the home as the natural and singular site of female labor and affect, widespread patriarchal perceptions, institutions, and practices mean that this logic of ‘women’s work’ is reproduced and passed on to domestic help, as they become the labour substitutes of their female employer, and contend with the minimization of their work. Concurrently, the theory of gendered familialism assumes that a woman’s voluntarily and ‘naturally’ given love and nurture is the impetus for the constant care of the young, old, and ‘working’ members, and does not require any remuneration or consideration. Therefore, the very requirement of domestic workers who undertake this as full-time employment in exchange for payment threatens these archaic notions. In retaliation, there is a faux familial bond that is imposed upon these workers, to create a repressive atmosphere within which the employee is unable to assert their rights or make demands in a purely professional manner. This is reinforced by using familial endearments such as ‘didi’ or ‘akka’ (literally ‘older sister’). This manipulation of the formality of workplace relations, results in a lack of concrete definitions regarding the quantity and nature of work expected. In the case of live-in workers, it includes a blurring of the boundaries of time and space between the home and the workplace. This constructed sense of duty towards the well-being of the family, gives complete autonomy to employers to determine and mold      the terms of the work, as per their convenience

“Borders between countries are marked by fences, but borders between classes are marked out by where you may sit, where you may go to the bathroom, and where and with whom you may eat,” writes journalist Tripti Lahiri, in her book Maid in India, that traces the lived experiences of domestic workers employed in privileged homes across India. Employers continue to maintain physical and ritualistic distance from domestic workers who they consider to be ‘impure’, replicating in everyday life the rigid social hierarchies and resultant norms of segregation that characterise the caste system. Domestic workers were disallowed from using toilets within the home and have reported being unable to relieve themselves through the entire day’s work. This      often resulted in      harmful urinary tract infections, or conversely, having to go out in the open. For women, this also means enduring severe humiliation and compromising their safety in the process. Although employers may have once explicitly invoked caste to bar domestic workers from using these facilities, today they are more likely to assert that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets. Given that it is not uncommon to find domestic workers operating a wide range of technology and machinery (water filters, washing machines, microwaves), their reluctance to educate their workers cannot be explained. Rather, the issue is far more deeply rooted. It is, as a user on the open discussion forum Quora succinctly puts it, “as simple as hygiene” . By this logic (commonly employed by ‘liberal’ employers to condone casteist practices such as untouchability, while they affirm their outrage at these outdated ideas) those entrusted with the washing of the family’s utensils, preparation of food, and well-being of an infant, are not only ‘unhygienic’, but moreover, are incapable of matching the immaculate standards that all other adults in the household somehow inherently possess. In Lahiri’s book, the maid-in-training represented by the character of Preeti thus warns of the necessity not only of being hygienic, but of being seen as hygienic, and recommends washing hands within eyeshot of ‘ma’am’ (129). Regrettably, no amount of cleanliness is likely to be enough for her future employers, who continue to cling to their obsolete notions of ascribed and inherent ‘purity’ and pollution’. Workers in a survey also mentioned that employers complained when they came to work dressed up, as they viewed this as a blurring of their distinction. It is clear therefore that these rules of employment serve a far more problematic purpose: to categorically distinguish the worth and dignity of employers, relative to workers.

Marx’s concept of the commodification of labour, which creates an arbitrary “assess[ment] of human value”, not as beings with intrinsic worth, but as commodities to be utilized at will is evident in the behavior  towards domestic help. Their lives, needs, circumstances, and even existence, in the hours spent outside the workplace, are simply irrelevant. They are often denied leaves for occasions such as a wedding in their immediate family and may lose their job even for unforeseen absences in cases of emergency. Amid the global pandemic, seventeen-year-old Tara Devi working as a live-in maid, was prohibited from meeting her own family for months, and when she finally refused the ultimatum, was immediately fired. Perversely enough, there have also been instances of domestic workers literally being equated to objects, (albeit perhaps more coveted ones). The popular ‘e-commerce’ agency, ‘BookMyBai’ (its purpose being exactly what its name suggests) released an advertisement for the festive season in November 2015, worded “Diamonds are useless! Gift your wife a maid. When questioned, founders of the company were convinced that it was harmless at worst, humorous at best. Despite sporadic backlash, the continued success of the agency is a jarring testament to the elitist, sexist, and regressive nature of its target audience, and an apt indicator of the actual esteem in which they would hold their employees.

This website, like various other domestic employment agencies, allows employers to view potential workers segregated according to religion, caste, and place of birth. A study found that “Hindu women as employers use a particular cognitive frame of reference to rationalize      their choice of domestic servants”, the dominant concern being whether or not they will match the socio-cultural preferences of the employing family. A notable element identified and discussed was that immigrant Nepali Hindu maids in Delhi are deemed preferable because, from the perspective of the middle-class Hindu employers, they belong to “our culture”, whereas Indian low-caste Hindu and Muslim women are dismissed and treated as ‘others’, decidedly less desirable. The interviewed employers also repeatedly referred to the broader group of undesirable maids as ‘bhangi’ a term which denotes a single historically oppressed ‘untouchable’ group, but is now widely recognized as a casteist slur, due to the contexts in which it has been employed. This compulsive “othering” of domestic workers is essential to the convoluted justification for the mistreatment of their employees. If they are ‘different’ from us, why shouldn’t they be treated as such

Scientist Medha Khole in Pune, verbally and physically abused her former employee because he allegedly misrepresented his caste , and thus “desecrate[d] her god”. This distressing incident is only a single example of the complicity of ‘educated’ Indians in the aggressive perpetuation of these practices. The caste sub-division traditionally known as ‘jati’has been employed to distinguish the “mai”, working in the kitchen, washing clothes and utensils, from the “jamadarni”, cleaning washrooms and the excreta of family pets. Despite both categories of domestic workers belonging to ‘lower castes’, having been historically oppressed and continuing to feel the repercussions of this subjugation, the differentiation between the two roles remains sharp, strategically encouraged by employers. Within this microcosmic stratification, where workers compete to distinguish their own position relative to other employees, there is no scope for collective consciousness. They cannot and will not sustain unified demands for a standard of working conditions, even within the same household.

Employers’ unwillingness to formalize their professional relationship with domestic workers indicates resistance to taking due responsibility for their employees. There is unparalleled intimacy required for domestic workers to be privy to the innermost lives of these households, witnessing their squabbles, raising their children, and cleaning their messes. It is replaced by an equally stringent reluctance to even acknowledge the employment relationship as soon as there is a need for reciprocity. The leadership of the Communist AITUC-affiliated union in Maharashtra, describes an incident where employers refused to fill out a single form that would give workers access to government programs at no cost to employers. This is unsurprising, considering that the exploitation of domestic workers only thrives in the absence of such documentation. With no proof or contract of employment, there are no standards secured for the workplace, and no basis for accountability. Employers can fire on a whim, need not provide sufficient leaves, medical care, bonuses, overtime, pension, or support in hardship or emergency. Due to the heterogeneity of workers, place of work, nature of work, and employment relationship, this remains a gaping hole in policymaking. Unfortunately, various judgements have      reiterated that those engaged in personal service cannot be considered ‘workmen’ (under the 1926 Trade Unions Act).Essentially, the domestic worker cannot have recourse to labor     laws or labor      courts in case a dispute arises with the employer. Additionally, local authorities such as Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) lack incentives to cater to their needs, and during the pandemic, even indulged in discriminatory practices such as barring the use of common spaces and promoting the stigmatization of workers, instead of taking steps to ensure safety and relevant training. As the political clout of an expanding and increasingly confident middle class has grown, steps that do not appear in their interest are conveniently kept in abeyance, and thus any law to enhance labor rights is viewed with suspicion. Legislation that would guarantee workers minimum wages or social security has been pending approval in parliament for over a decade. Further, the structure of domestic work, where each worker enters their place of work as an independent self-employed worker limits the scope for collective action. A subsequent lack of a locus for organizing that is analogous to the factory site, and the precarity of work, makes any organizing a threat to livelihood (Rajesh et al. 38-42). The mistreatment of domestic workers in Indian homes is therefore implicitly condoned by a systemic lack of consequences.

In a system stratified by class, “social status and economic security go together”. Therefore, domestic workers continue to grapple with the many consequences of financial insecurity in a country without a social security net, including poor access to health care, crushing debt, and unmet needs of adequate nutrition, shelter, and other essentials. As the demands of this largely physical labor are unsustainable after a certain age, they have no scope to stop working while they can, which takes an irreparable toll on their mental and physical health. Large families are often the norm due to lack of access to or knowledge of contraceptives and other methods of family planning. The paucity of resources often forces these children to abandon their education and contribute to the family income from a young age, preventing upward social mobility. Judicial inaccessibility and police maladministration create barriers to seeking justice when they are at the receiving end of humiliation, stigmatization, and violence. The pandemic has additionally resulted in employers exploiting the desperate condition of domestic workers to extract a higher quantum of work without adequate compensation, in extreme cases even denying salary under the pretext that the domestic help were the carriers of disease into the household. The glaring gaps in official data about the condition of domestic workers, the lack of public investment in their welfare, and the poor implementation of their few safeguards only exacerbate the issue. The struggles of domestic workers are, therefore, as much a result of the economic, as it is of the political, as much a failure of the legal and the administrative.It is their treatment in Indian households, the individual choices made every day by the most privileged employers in the country, that is unquestionably a social issue. These choices reflect a culture that demands a service, and simultaneously degrades those who provide it. It rests upon the institutions created by privileged, upper-caste, and upper-class Indians, through a misguided belief in their own superiority, and decades of entrenched and reinforced social and economic capital. And finally sustaining this feudal structure is complicity: who would dare to question behavior that is normalized and replicated in their own home? If the issue is social, then so must the reform be. The prejudice that forms the bedrock must be acknowledged, questioned, and even shamed. The issues that stem from it require a commitment to fair working conditions, humane treatment, and genuine opportunities for progress for domestic workers, irrespective of their socio-cultural background. A far cry from dispensable and inferior, domestic workers are self-employed individuals providing a valuable service. The dignity accorded them, as employees in Indian households, must be equivalent.

Aadya Narain is a winner of the Swaroop Writing Competition 2022.

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