Domestic workers or maids are placed at the bottom of the labour hierarchy as it is considered “women’s work” that requires few skills and have little value. (Representational image: Flickr) Photograph: (Others)
Domestic workers in India are victims of various forms of structural violence that society has come to consider normal.
Seema* is a working woman, the primary breadwinner of the family as her husband remains ill. After a tiring day at work, instead of unwinding, she cooks for her family of five. Her elder daughter is working, the younger one is training for her career and the youngest, the son, is in school. Her job has its challenges but which one doesn’t?
Most of us reading this will find a glimpse of Seema in themselves or their wives, mothers or some female figure. However, Seema’s life is incomparable to theirs.
Not your average working woman
The 24-year-old Seema does dusting, sweeping, mopping, utensil cleaning and laundry at four houses to earn a meagre amount of 7000 rupees per month. Like every other maid in the apartment, she gets no weekly offs. If she takes leave to visit her village, her salary “obviously” gets deducted.
To add to it, Seema does not get paid even in time. “It was 10th March 2013 and I still hadn’t received my salary. Memsahib (Madam) had left for office. I requested sahib (Sir) for the money as I had started exhausting my savings for groceries. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Could you just do one task before I get my wallet?’ He pointed towards his crotch--I was dumbstruck,”
Sahib told memsahib that I was stealing and I was blacklisted from the apartment. My husband was disappointed only because I didn't get my salary
Her face turned pale as she recalled the horror. “I simply said no and walked off but he came for me--held me from my waist and announced ‘I will keep you happy if you keep me happy. Let me offer you some additional income for the last month’ he said while rubbing his crotch against my hip. I shouted, cried and threatened to complain to his wife which is when he finally let me go,” she gasped.
When asked if she complained to the cops, she gave a downcast smile “Forget about cops. I wasn’t even allowed to enter that house then onwards. Sahib told memsahib that I was stealing and I was blacklisted from the apartment. My husband was disappointed only because I didn't get my salary. The maximum I could do was to warn my peers so that they are careful in that house,” she said.
“The domestic helpers do not know their rights. There is no regulation in this field. Even in instances where cases are filed, it is very difficult and rare to have evidence against the exploitative employer. The police almost never cooperates,” explains Anupam SInhal, founder of BookMayBai--an online aggregator of maid bureaus. On his blog, Anupam Sinhal explained how Bollywood celebrities mistreated the domestic helpers, which urged him to put a blanket ban on them from using BookMyBai's services.
On his blog, Anupam Sinhal explained how Bollywood celebrities mistreated the domestic helpers, which urged him to put a blanket ban on them from using BookMyBai's services.
'We are maids, not employees--we have no rights'
Domestic workers are placed at the bottom of the labour hierarchy as it is considered “women’s work” that requires few skills and have little value. The men usually opt for the better paying, "more skilled" career choices such as a construction site worker, rickshaw puller, auto or cab driver, electrician, and plumber.The domestic work in India exists as a legacy of the caste system that operates with structural violence, especially against women working in this industry. The social stratification of domestic workers is a validation and solidification of the age-old practice of the caste system.
Commenting on the mindset that has been perpetuating the miserable treatment of domestic workers, Sadia Saeed, founder and chief psychologist at Inner Space Team, says: “Indian history talks of caste system, zamindari system, which still remains embedded in our society. There was king and slave culture--the mindset of people is to believe that they can be oppressed. Moreover, there is no dignity of labour. In the west, there are is no particular community to pick up the garbage. In India, to a great extent, your caste decides the kind of role you will do. Ours is a very money-oriented hierarchical system."
The transition from slavery to domestic work seems like natural progression. The notion that “Women’s place is in the home” further naturalises domestic labour. Moreover, the presence of dirt helps stigmatise such work and people who perform it.
The domestic work in India exists as a legacy of the caste system that operates with structural violence, especially against women working in this industry
Violence, but not the way you have known it
In general, violence is always visualised as a physical force intended to hurt or damage someone. However, there is another form that brutality takes--when social structure harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs--such type is termed structural violence. The domestic help in India is sadly a victim of the same.
Explaining the nature of structural violence and how she is a victim of it, Radha*, a maid working in the Delhi area, has this poignant anecdote to share: “The pay is good and she is never abusive. But she feeds me two meals a day--either bread with tea or boiled rice with bland daal--I’ve been surviving on that for three long months now. There are frequent parties at the house and there are leftovers but those are never given to me. Only when it is about to rot and had to be discarded is when I am told to consume it. I do not have a washroom assigned to myself. I have to go to the market area or request the guards to use theirs in cases of emergency. I worked part-time in another house where I take a bath. Some employers are good, some are bad--we have to deal with it,” explains Radha.
Structure sounds like a neutral term--something that is just there--unquestionable, part of the way this world it. The violence embedded in this structure is something that layman does not notice. The suffering and injustice are deeply embedded in the ordinary, taken-for-granted patterns of the way the world is. The structures that are secure, comfortable, predictable for one section of the society causes poverty, insecurity, ill-health and violence for the other.
Denying maids of basic amenities are all acts of violence that have been normalised by the society over the time
Informal recruitment is in itself a form of structural violence. The domestic helpers get jobs mostly through word of mouth or spatial connections. The terms and conditions decided by the employer do not have any pre-set standards or guidelines. This gives much room for possible exploitation--long working hours, not adhering to minimum wages, no weekly off days. Absence of labour laws and lack of awareness and resources to pursue their rights, the domestic helpers agree to what is offered. The high-number of poverty-stricken women looking for domestic work in order to survive makes them dispensable, undermining their value in the marketplace. This, couples with stereotypes of 'servants', explains the treatment received by domestic maids at their workplace.
Denying maids of basic amenities are all acts of violence that have been normalised by the society over the time. The ones on the receiving side feel that this is all they are entitled to and the employer does not realise the concept of an optimum work environment. These structures are neither natural nor neutral, but are actually outcomes of the strong history of political, economic and social struggle.
'Must my maid worship the same God?'
Aasma was 12 when she got her first job to take care of a 65-year-old woman. On her first day at work, the old woman directed her to comb her hair and prepare a cup of tea--all of which she easily managed. She was then told to clean the idols of deities kept in the temple room. The curious Aasma started asking questions about the gods--she barely knew Ganesha, Ram and Krishna idols. That is when the old woman realised--Aasma was a Muslim--she had not bothered to ask her name.
The woman got furious and snatched the idols from her. She thudded one slap across Aasma’s face--”How dare you enter my house? Why didn’t you tell me you are Muslim? I will have to wash them with gangajal (holy water) now! Will God forgive me? I had tea made by you. I will be going to hell now. Get out of my house right away!” Aasma ran off straight to a park near the society--and cried for hours. She now goes by the name of Lakshmi and knows all gods inside out. She hides her identity to keep her stomach full.
She thudded one slap across Aasma’s face--”How dare you enter my house? Why didn’t you tell me you are Muslim? I will have to wash them with gangajal (holy water) now!
Anupam lists the religion of the domestic helper on BookMyBai. “The reason is convenience and transparency. We need to be upfront with the clients so that the helpers do not have to face embarrassment." Anupam, however, recommends his clients to employ maids of the other religion--he believes that the leave structure would be designed in a better manner in that case. “A Muslim maid working for a Hindu family is not likely to ask for long leaves during Diwali--so she can be present to serve the guests."
A powerless poor in an alien land
Aaloka* hails from a rural area of West Bengal. But which country does she belong to? It is India in this instance. But being able to belong to the whole country together is a privilege which only the rich have. A wealthy person has the power to make a home out of any place they visit. For Aaloka, however, any place outside the native village is an alien place. She struggles with language, does not know the standards and protocols of the area, copes up with discrimination and harassment, and fights for an identity in the nation she calls her own. She was cheated for high rents and lost all the money she brought from her hometown.
"It is much more difficult for migrant workers because they do not have a home. It all boils down to the feeling of belongingness that takes your misery away," says Saida. Aaloka and several other maids who leave their homes in the hope of a better future are devoid of that.
It is much more difficult for migrant workers because they do not have a home. It all boils down to the feeling of belongingness that takes your misery away
What happens behind those closed doors, stays behind the doors
In the personal space that the house is, what happens behind the closed doors remains hidden from the rest of the world. The madams, while exploiting, abusing and undermining their maids are not scared of getting exposed and spoiling their reputation in the society. The same people are kind to guards, peons and other staff at their workplace, but their attitude towards their housemaids differ. In the space that one believes to be the sole owner of, one feels they are allowed to do whatever they want.
“Madam was very particular about the work--the bed had to be made four times a day, she was obsessed with how her things are set, what temperature the food should be served at. Abusing was common from the beginning. She would occasionally slap me or push me hard when she was too mad or had a bad day. She would apologise the next day. I kept flowing with how things were until this one time. She slapped me in front of her guests--I was done but didn’t leave. I completed the month, took my salary and disappeared without saying a word,” Meera* from Worli, Mumbai explained.
We happen to lose our temper on our children. The intention is never evil. However, in the case of domestic maids, the sense of superiority clubbed with frustration in a home environment makes domestic help an easy target and makes the employer act in an inhumane manner.
Some people do treat maids as a part of their family--they invest in comforting and grooming them--but they are almost owned and never treated as an employee.