Fifty-year-old Rama (name changed) began working as a maid in Sarojini Nagar, Delhi, after her husband, who used to manage a small barber shop under Safdarjung Airport flyover, fell sick and was bedridden till his death. Now, not only does she have to bear the double burden of household work in her home and where she works, but also has to make substantial efforts to hide the fact from her relatives, both in Delhi and in her village. If they knew, they would say, “she cleans scraps of leftovers from others’ dishes (Kahte ye doosron ke ghar mein jhoote bartan manjti hai ),” she explains.
In my two years of field work with domestic workers and listening to a wide range of stories that they have told me, I can pick up one common thread — the majboori (helplessness and compulsion) that drove them to work.
Today is the third International Domestic Workers’ Day. In India, official figures show that there are 4.75 million domestic workers, out of whom three million are women in urban areas. These are contentious figures; perhaps a grave underrepresentation. The actual number is probably closer to 90 million. Therefore, the discourse on ensuring the dignity and the rights for domestic workers has to become far more nuanced than it has been till now. The shame and stigma that domestic workers in India experience is not simply a symptom of their inner life but is also sustained by external, social structures and processes. Any vision of dignified domestic work must take into consideration the poignant issue of prejudice against domestic workers, which is institutionalised not just in informal work relations in individual households, but also in the organised domain of state and public policy.
It should not come as a surprise to any Indian that, very often, the division of tasks and even the hiring of workers is based on their caste and even their religion. It is very difficult for women from the Scheduled Castes to find a job as a cook, and such a denial of opportunity often confines them to their caste occupation or tasks closer to that. The monetary and social value of these tasks is certainly embedded in our history of caste — traditionally, “impure” tasks are even lower paid while domestic work continues being a low paid activity in general. The veiled practices of untouchability by employers perpetuate caste and the stigma associated with caste-based labour. Such practices can be camouflaged by notions of maintaining “hygiene” — having a separate cup for the maid, or cloaked in the name of “privacy,” the maid not being allowed to use the toilet in the house of her employers — but, at the core, they remain casteist.
State machinery and agencies very often embody similar prejudices but in more subtle forms. For example, the association of domestic workers as a group linked with crimes (theft in particular) and the consequential, institutional responses exemplify how official structures actively feed into perpetuating these forms of stigma and stereotypes. The Delhi Police, in its “Appeal and Advisory for Citizens” suggest how “citizens” should avoid sharing access, information and even the display of valuables with “servants/strangers” and must do a police verification of their “servant” before employment. The 2009 Delhi Development Report observes that this kind of approach is “partisan,” as the verification implicitly assumes that employers will never be involved in any criminal activity against their “servants.” Theft is a fear not only for the employer but also for the worker. The mere allegation of theft can cause the loss of the job held as well as an end to work possibilities forever. Such an institutionalisation of prejudices, in addition to exaggerating the actual danger, also ensures that there is no scope left to highlight the vulnerabilities of the other party in the arrangement. In a press release recently, the Ministry of Women and Child Development shared statistics of a report, “Violence against Maid Servants,” according to which violence against women workers has shown an increase from 3,422 cases in 2010 to 3,564 in 2012. How does the government respond to these figures? Sexual abuse of women domestic workers is not uncommon, rather it is an under-reported form of abuse. Does this make police and society look at employers as rapists and harassers? Why is the reverse a socially accepted norm?
Changing just one fact of Indian society might be the start to overcoming many of these prejudices: we must acknowledge home as a workplace. When we think of an employer’s home as just a private space, and not a domestic worker’s workplace, we render the worker invisible. Unless “home” is recognised to be a workplace, the vulnerabilities of domestic workers cannot be brought under check. It is the most contentious issue of all as this is seen as an impingement on employers’ privacy. Not all employers discriminate against their domestic help. However, that does not belie the fact that since home is an isolated site of work, hidden from the surveillance of the state, workers are always susceptible to violence and ill-treatment. Recognising home as workplace is the first step in taming that susceptibility of being humiliated or being subject to degrading treatment. A set of measures to protect workers at their place of work is a great beginning, but the larger objective should be to empower workers to have a sense of entitlement and claims over their site of work just like many of us at our respective formal workplaces do.
Replacing terms like “servant” with more sophisticated terms like “domestic help” does not really rid domestic work of its stigma, nor confer protection on the worker; such replacements are not accompanied by a corresponding change in attitudes at a larger societal level. Thus, any policy on domestic work that doesn’t address the stigma and discrimination originating from large-scale, structural forms of prejudices against these workers will result in nothing but failure. A National Policy for Domestic Workers was drafted by the Ministry of Labour and Employment that addresses the issue of discrimination in the workplace and in various other domains. However, the process of addressing some of these issues has to be far more comprehensive than what the policy seems to offer. The policy, for example, does not engage with the complex and more prevalent forms of discrimination, like police verification or any effort to counterbalance the same. Also, while suggestions to build “common facilities” like toilet and rest area might seem progressive, what they do is to institutionalise the separateness of the domestic worker. The policy’s repeated reference to workers’ right to “work with dignity and respect” as citizens of India, naturally makes one expect that the policy will make their long due claim over dignity and respect, substantive and not merely rhetorical, but it cannot succeed without targeting the biases against workers that have prevailed for so long.
This policy awaits a final nod from the new Union cabinet. The new government that ran on a platform of “inclusivity” now has to look at the fate of this enormous chunk of the working population as a critical sphere in which it can prove its political will to truly correct the economic and social inequalities that the poor in this country live with.
(Sonal Sharma is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)