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#India – HELP! Domestic Workers

Millions of domestic workers, who help us work our jobs and parent our children, are often victims of modern-day slavery and trafficking. Our homes, in fact, are at the edge of India’s rich-poor divide, says Gargi Gupta as she looks beyond cases of violent abuse to examine the status of the invisible but vital workforce
Gargi Gupta

In mid-September, around the time the media was raging against the brutal sexual assault of two Nepalese domestic workers by a Saudi Arab diplomat, another bit of news was tucked away in the inside pages of a few Delhi newspapers. It was about a 12-year-old girl, employed as a domestic help in a Noida highrise, who’d used a sari tied to the balcony grill to climb down from the 13th to 12th floor, in her desperation to flee her “employers”. They would, she told the police, not let her leave the house, make her work all hours of the day, and give her food just twice – tea in the morning and two chapattis in the evening; the bathroom was off limits, so she’d have to use the balcony.

Horrifying? Yes, but no more shocking than the condition of a 15-year-old girl from Jharkhand, who was rescued from Vasant Kunj, a middle-class neighbourhood in south Delhi, some years ago. She was found half-naked with knife and bite injuries and burn marks; her employer, a 50-year-old executive in an MNC, would beat her regularly and make her drink urine. And then was the case of another minor girl from the northeast whose air hostess employer would lock her up for weeks on end when she flew abroad.

Policy for the ‘invisibles’

And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. While sensational cases of abuse and violent assault hit the national spotlight, what gets ignored is the daily exploitation of domestic help in urban Indian homes, the irregular work hours, lack of leave, poor pay, and worse, the lack of dignity. Indeed, how many times have you gone to a mall or a restaurant to find these young maids tagging along, holding heavy bags or minding the child, standing by as the family tucks into their meal? It is as if they’re invisible.

The government recently announced that it has prepared a draft national policy for domestic workers, which mandates a minimum monthly wage of Rs9,000, mandatory leave, social security cover and a tripartite agreement involving the worker, the employer and the placement agency. This is still at the proposal stage – very far from becoming an actionable legal tool that will protect the domestic worker.

Bindu, a 22-year-old domestic help, who works as a full-time domestic help in east Delhi, gets paid Rs5,500 a month — this works out to Rs184 a day, far less than the minimum wage of Rs385 a day for unskilled labour notified by the state government. Bindu cooks, looks after a four-year-old child and keeps the house clean for the four-member family. Though her employers don’t sting when it comes to food, “there’s just so much work that it is often two or three in the afternoon, that I get to eat lunch”, she says.

“I was ill this summer. I had diarrhoea and high fever. I would have recovered fast had I rested but where was the time? Madam had to go to work; the child had to be got back from school and fed, and a hundred little jobs to do in the house,” says her friend Vasudha. Vasudha was lucky – her employers took her to the doctor and paid for her treatment. They even took a few days leave when her health took a turn for the worse.

The lucky ones

Bindu and Vasudha are lucky in other ways too – their employers do not grudge them a little time off every evening when they accompany their wards to the playground. “We are from the same area in north Bengal and belong to the same Oraon tribe,” Vasudha says smiling. “We chat a bit, compare our employers, our pay, what work we do, tell each other what happened through the day. It feels nice to speak in our own language.” They’ve also opened bank accounts back in Siliguri and get their employer to transfer the money direct into their accounts.

These days, Bindu and Vasudha are worried about Pinky, a girl from their part of the country who’s recently come to work in the same apartment complex. Pinky is not allowed to step out of the house. “Her employers say that we gossip and will spoil her. But she told us, when she sneaked out once, that they don’t give her proper food, only leftover daal and sabzi and that too after everyone has eaten,” says Bindu. “We are worried about her and have told her to speak to the agency that has brought her here if things get too bad.” But that too is an uncertain hope – after all, as Vasudha chips in with the wisdom of her six years’ work experience, “All the agency cares about is their commission. They don’t care about us”.

We Indians can’t do without domestic help – the entire motley of part-time bais who sweep and mop, cooks who whip up the daily daal-chawal and drivers who negotiate the chaotic traffic as we chat on the mobile. With the rise in double-income nuclear families in urban India, the demand for domestic help has risen by leaps and bounds in recent years. Numbers are hard to come by in this unregulated, grey sector, but a recent estimate by KPMG for the government’s National Skill Development Corporation estimates the domestic workforce in India to be six million strong in 2013, and projected to grow to 10.88 million by 2022.

Sushmita Dasgupta, a senior marketing executive who lives with her two children and parents in a Gurgaon high-rise, speaks for an entire generation of working women when she says, “I couldn’t do without my full-time domestic help. They are my lifeline. Who will look after my father-in-law, who is an invalid and has a separate diet and needs to be given his medicines on time? Who will meet my children at the school bus and give them lunch when they come home? Besides, I have a hectic schedule and get late coming home in the evening. I also have to travel frequently for work.”

Dasgupta has been procuring domestic help from a “placement” agency in Delhi for the past five years – she has two maids, both in their late teens-early twenties, and pays them Rs10,000 each; of this, Rs7,000 goes to the girls and Rs3,000 to the agency. But it hasn’t been easy for her as well. “None of the maids are trained when they come. I’ve had some girls coming straight from the village – one didn’t even know how to read the time while another was so homesick she ran away. I spent a few sleepless nights until she was located. Many don’t know how to put on the gas, much less use the microwave or washing machine. Their personal hygiene is so poor that I insist that they first have a bath, wash their hair with anti-lice shampoo and clean their clothes properly with detergent.”

Trapped in the network

Few of us think of the issue in these terms, but in reality our homes are poised on the edge of India’s rich-poor divide, the convergent point of a great wave of migration, mostly of women, taking place from the rural remote interiors of the country, by desperately poor hordes untouched by the benefits of government development programmes, and into the cities where they hope to make their fortune.

At the forefront of this migration is a network of “placement agencies” at one end, the local toughs who act as recruiting agents in the villages and, on the other, grungy rooms located in crowded, rundown localities of cities where these girls are brought to. “The families are promised either that the girl will be made to study or that the work will be very halka-pulka – baccha dekhna hoga,” says Rishikant of Shanktivahini, an NGO in Delhi that works with the police to rescue these girls. “The parents, often, don’t care. The promise of money, often, is as low as Rs3,000.”

The employers, says Rishikant, are equally to blame. “These placement agencies have no legal standing. Most of them give a receipt with a registration number, but how many care to check whether it is genuine? The forms have the girls’ names, address and ages – but where’s the proof? There should at least be a certificate from the school, as most have been to one until class two-three – but who thinks of asking?”

Another matter of concern, as Rishikant points out, is the overlap between the placement agency network sourcing domestic help and the one trafficking women into the flesh trade. The government too, he says, has been slack in monitoring the agencies, or implementing the laws against child labour, or those governing minimum wage, work conditions, hours of work, etc.

“Only one state in India – Chhattisgarh – has a law to regulate domestic workers and placement agencies. In Delhi, which is where most of these placement agencies operate from, the government brought out a notification last year requiring registration of all placement agencies, passbooks issued to every employee, three-way contracts and payments to be made into bank accounts. But it’s been nearly a year and not a single placement agency has been registered and neither have the Delhi women’s commission or child welfare committee, which are supposed to monitor this, done anything.”

The domestic help, it seems, is invisible to the government too.

[email protected], @togargi

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Comment (1)

  1. 50% infants in India are undernourished/starving/dying;
    If I were Prime Minister, I’d give a monthly Social security pension to all married women in India;

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