By – Maya John

The “Noida case” in Delhi, whereindomestic workers protesting the torture of one of their ranks were booked by the police for rioting, showcases the exploitation at different levels that these workers and their families suffer. Not only do their employers virtually treat them like slaves but the police and lawyers also take advantage of their helplessness and ignorance to foist false charges and fleece them of their hard-earned money. In this particular incident, a union minister who is also the local MP gave the entire incident a communal colour by insinuating that hard-pressed employers were forced to employ “Bangladeshis” in their homes.

Cities across India have seen a continuous growth in the number of impoverished women and children seeking employment as domestic workers. Till the early 1990s, domestic workers consisted largely of local labour. However, in the post-liberalisation era, the domestic workers are mostly migrant labourers. Absorbed initially as construction workers in the cities, many of them subsequently turn to domestic work. Slums that come up near posh housing societies in big cities are now overflowing with predominantly interstate migrant labour. In the Delhi–National Capital Region, a large number of such domestic workers are from impoverished sections of Bengal, Assam and Jharkhand.

In mid-July, this otherwise docile workforce showed remarkable collective zeal against their wealthy employers in Noida. The ugly underbelly of rampant exploitation of domestic workers, and the huge cleavage between their interests and those of their employers was laid bare for all to see when domestic workers began an agitation outside a high-rise residential complex, the Mahagun Moderne, in Noida’s Sector 78. The incident that occurred on 12 July also revealed the sickening nexus between the police, employers, and right-wing politicians who extended support to the employers without batting an eyelid. Within hours, the struggle against a gender crime and a pertinent labour issue was given a communal colour, with the accused employers and their sympathisers identifying the protesting workers as “Bangladeshis.”

Shockingly, on 16 July, the Union Minister of Culture and Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament (MP), Mahesh Sharma, met the residents of Mahagun Moderne and made references to the domestic workers as “Bangladeshis”. A resident of Noida Sector 15, the minister went to the extent of questioning the police verification process in place, and claimed that household needs compelled middle-class homes to employ “Bangladeshis”! In a threatening, belligerent tone the MP went on to say that the jailed slum dwellers “would not get bail for years.” He also threatened activists supporting the workers with dire consequences. Following closely on the heels of the minister’s visit, on 17 July, shanty shops opposite Mahagun Moderne, on which the slum dwellers were dependent for their daily provisions, were razed to the ground.

Needless to say, while the Noida police and politicians organise confidence-building sessions with the Mahagun residents, they have simultaneously unleashed a reign of terror on domestic workers and their families living in the neighbouring slums.

Unresponsive State

The incident has clearly become a serious litmus test for the law’s functioning on the ground. Yet again, it exposes the crisis nurtured by the Indian state’s unwillingness to ratify the Inernational Labour Organization’s Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and thereby, to modify landmark labour laws so as to bring domestic work under the purview of state regulation. All major labour laws, such as the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; Maternity Benefit Act, 1961; Workman’s Compensation Act, 1923; Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979; Payment of Wages Act, 1936; Employee’s State Insurance Act, 1948; Employees; Provident Funds and MiscellaneousProvisions Act, 1952 are inapplicable to domestic workers, given the existing definition of “worker”, “employer” and “workplace” in these laws.

The Noida case, as well as other similar incidents of agitated workers resorting to “rioting” in order to bargain for their rights demand close examination. Such outbursts are a consequence of highly unregulated employer–employee relations, and the crisis bred by an administration unresponsive to workers’ complaints. The lack of state regulation of domestic services is embodied in the low, stagnant wage rates that prevail. The female domestic worker typically works in several houses, or as a full-time domestic worker for a single family. Wage rates for domestic work vary across cities, and even within a single city. The wages are very low, especially in the case of Bengali and Adivasi workers. This compels the women to seek employment in more than one household, and to push their teenage daughters into doing the same work. Apart from low wages, the release of payment varies according to the whims and fancies of the employer/madam. Delayed payment, sometimes amounting to two to three months, is a constant source of friction between domestic workers and their employers. Another exploitative practice is the arbitrary reduction in wages, based solely on the employer’s discretion of the days worked and time clocked. Connected with this practice is the predominant tendency of employers to extract a larger quantum of work without increasing the wage rate fixed at the commencement of employment.

However, there is more to the exploitative employer–employee relationship than the low wage rates, irregular payment, etc. Typically, the work relation in domestic service is characterised by a high degree of privatisation of regulation, which allows the employer to exercise quasi-magisterial powers over the domestic worker. This is a trend which resembles the penal work regimes of the early colonial period, wherein employers predefined the terms of contract and penalised attempts by the worker to leave or renegotiate the contract.

Penal Work Regimes

Similarly, placement agencies that have mushroomed with the burgeoning need of middle-class homes for cheap domestic labour have come to resemble jobbers, who thrived in earlier work regimes as middlemen. Jobbers would bring workers to employers and then charge both sides for the same. As a consequence, jobbers tied down the workers to contracts that were difficult to renegotiate. Today, a similar practice repeats itself through placement agencies that actually traffic large numbers of hapless women and children from the country’s poorest states, proceed to sign contracts with the “madams,” and then push the vulnerable workers into a back-breaking work regime. In this light, the mere registration of placement agencies under the Shops and Establishments Act, as has been done in Delhi, is an inadequate attempt to regulate the malpractices of agencies. Such piecemeal measures have basically provided a way out for the state to refrain from active intervention in the concrete work conditions and the process by which domestic workers are brought to the cities and put to work.

The privatisation of regulation in the domestic labour industry lies at the very core of the work relation between the domestic worker and the madam. Case after case shows that when domestic workers express an unwillingness to continue working, or demand pending wages or a leave/rest, they are simply refused. In many cases, they are verbally and physically assaulted by their employers. The assault, as in the Noida case, is easily concealed under the garb of manufactured accusations of theft that the madam levels, post-factum, on the domestic worker. The crime committed by the employer—be it denial of wages, denial of leave, forced overtime, or verbal/physical assault—are easily overturned once the madam claims that she caught the “maid” in a criminal act. Hardly is the madam questioned as to why she took the law into her own hands and proceeded to punish the “maid”.

Given just how unregulated domestic work is, and the tacit logic which accompanies unregulated work relations it is never realised that the individual employer is not simply the employer but a quasi-magisterial power in the work relation. The extent of this absolute authority enjoyed by the employer in the domestic work industry is evident not just in the recurrent assaults on and intimidation of domestic workers, but also in the unjust manner in which madams debar domestic workers from entering the building complex to settle wage-related disputes, etc. Neither is it uncommon for them to get together and blacklist a worker who has asserted her rights. After all, it is easiest to hide behind the concrete walls, air-conditioned lobbies, shades, and fancy glass windows, and simply instruct private security guards manning the housing society’s gate to prevent a worker from entering and obtain what is owed to her.

Unfortunately, whenever the domain of this highly authoritarian work relation is exposed to public intervention, the police end up intervening in favour of employers. Given the vulnerability of domestic workers, the police tend toignore complaints received on behalf of workers. Consequently, cases of assault, rape and murder of domestic workers by their employers hardly reach the courtroom as local police stations build weak cases against employers. Shamelessly prolonged police investigations further ensure that assaulted domestic workers are continuously denied justice. In the case of Ranjeetha Brahma, a 17-year-old Assamese domestic worker who was found dead in the building complex of her employer on 10 March, the Gurgaon police took three months to get theaccused employer to “join” the ongoing investigation. In spite of the employer’s evasiveness, the police refused to make the arrest and prevent tampering with evidence. The compromised nature of investigation is evident in the routine functioning of the special investigation team (SIT) formed in Ranjeetha’s case after much agitation by domestic workers. The SIT till today makes principal eyewitnesses and the accused employer sit in the same room during interrogation! Similarly, in the Noida incident, the same complicit, pro-employer role has been evident in the Noida police’s investigation.

The crowd that began agitating outside the posh residential complex, Mahagun Moderne in Noida Sector 78, was in response to police inaction on a complaint registered by family members of a domestic worker, Zohra Bibi. Zohra Bibi had been missing after she entered the Mahagun complex for work on 11 July. Family members made a call to the police’s emergency number and even tried to file a missing person complaint at the Sector 49 police station on the night of 11 July. Constables who subsequently visited the apartment of the accused employer on the night of 11 July made no concerted efforts to search the apartment or building. By the early morning of 12 July, as other workers began showing up for work, Zohra Bibi’s family members appealed to their conscience and asked them not to work till Zohra Bibi was brought out. The crowd swelled, and when a highly traumatised and visibly assaulted Zohra Bibi was finally brought out of the complex, the crowd grew even more agitated. The pushing and shoving by private security guards soon led to chaos and mayhem.

Importantly, Zohra Bibi’s first information report (FIR) was the first to be filed. Subsequently, three FIRs were filed by the accused employer and residents of Mahagun Moderne. Expectedly, in the FIR filed by the employer, Zohra Bibi has been accused of stealing and fleeing. This is a post-factum accusation since it was made for the first time in an FIR lodged much after Zohra Bibi’s complaint. This point was not raised when Zohra Bibi’s husband visited the employer’s apartment twice on the night of 11 July. Moreover, three separate FIRs have been consciously filed to enable the police to construct a convenient sequence of events and build a case against the domestic worker, her family and the protesters. Expectedly, the Noida police have proceeded to focus their investigation entirely on the “riot” that ensued at the building’s gate, rather than on the complaint filed by Zohra Bibi; namely, that she was assaulted by her employer when she demanded her wages, and was subsequently confined when she tried to flee.

Eliding the FIR lodged by Zohra Bibi and the whole issue of illegal confinement, the Noida police proceeded to unleash a reign of terror on the neighbouring slums. On the night of 12 July, police teams forcefully barged into the slums and randomly picked up 58 male slum dwellers, including children. The next day the police officially arrested 13 male workers under the charges of rioting, destruction of property, and attempt to murder. Despite no person being injured from among the Mahagun residents and private security guards, the Noida police added the attempt to murder charge so as to make the bail application process tedious, as well as to spread fear among the larger section of domestic workers. Mahagun residents and right-wing groups, meanwhile, continue to poison the realm of social media with virulent posts that accuse the domestic workers of being “illegal immigrants,” “Bangladeshis,” “jihadis,” etc. This has seriously compromised the safety of hundreds of poor slum dwellers; a part of whom are Bengali Muslims.

Uphill Fight for Justice

With 13 workers jailed, the fight for justice has become an uphill climb. Across the board, workers’ experiences with theIndian courts and lawyers have been bitter. Getting bail is a distant dream and workers can spend months, even years as undertrials. It is disturbing to watch how desperate relatives of incarcerated workers, especially unorganised workers, fall easy prey to money-minting lawyers flocking the corridors of local courts. Pouncing on the distraught relatives of the jailed workers, local lawyers at the Noida District and Sessions Court extracted at least ₹500 each from the assembled family members. Ironically, in the Noida case two different lawyers filed bail applications for the workers without having access to the three FIRs against them! They had charged the hapless relatives of the workers for a one-minute appearance, and confidently proceeded to instruct the families to arrange for more resources so as to file bail applications in the sessions court. The union of domestic workers that reached the Noida court after all this had transpired had to pay almost ₹1,000 as a bribe to get one of local lawyers, who had appeared on behalf of the workers, to extract the three FIRs from the police. From then on, the union and a team of human rights lawyers have been managing the legalities of the case. The legal quagmire is such that the three separate FIRs against the workers has required each incarcerated worker to produce two bailees with respect to each of the three FIRs. Thus, if granted bail each worker has to produce six bailees; amounting to 78 bailees totally for release of the 13 workers.

The inaccessibility of the law and the continuous crackdown on individual and collective labour’s resistance has been facilitated by the steady withdrawal of state regulation from a larger corpus of work relations. The dilution of the labour inspectorate’s powers in recent times, and continuous amendments which reduce the protective ambit of key labour laws to larger workplaces and higher-paid segments of the workforce, have made it harder to negotiate for the rights of unorganised, informal sector workers. In a context where a growing number of workers are being denied minimum wages, the right to unionise and other labour rights, domestic workers’ struggle for decent wages and living conditions need to escalate, as well as chalk out new strategies.

([email protected]) works with the Gharelu Kamgar Union, a Delhi–NCR based union of domestic workers.