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The Indian Elite Has a Toilet Problem It Doesn’t Want to See

Concerns about hygiene are a flimsy cover for the casteism that governs middle class household attitudes towards letting domestic workers use their toilet

Hygienic enough to cook and clean but not to use the toilet. Credit: New Delhices/Flickr

Hygienic enough to cook and clean and wash but not to use the toilet. Credit: New Delhices/Flickr

Kolkata: ‘When it’s urgent, I’ll tell boudi that I need to go the bathroom’, explains Mithu as we sit chatting on the rickety bench by her home. ‘She’ll say to me, “Go, there’s no problem,” but I feel shy.’

Having begun work as a live-in ‘maid’ at the age of eight, Mithu made the transition to day-time work after her marriage, commuting into Kolkata from the village in South 24 Parganas where she lives with her family. She is now in her early fifties and works in six different households a day, spending an hour or so cleaning in each one.

The little time Mithu spends in each house day-to-day may explain why her employers have not raised the issue of toilet access, undeniably still a taboo topic in India. Previously, when living with employers, Mithu shared a separate toilet with other domestic staff; but now she is less sure which toilet she can use at work (if at all) and must ask permission each time she needs to go – something which she feels uncomfortable about despite her considerable experience negotiating with employers.

Nevertheless, in ‘urgent’ situations Mithu musters the courage to ask her employers if she can use the toilet: many others lack the confidence and bargaining power to do so. Furthermore, not all employers are as obliging as Mithu’s, and instances of domestic workers being refused access to the toilet, even when they ask, are not unheard of. Rita, the owner of a placement agency in south Kolkata reveals that employers sometimes snap at their domestic workers, saying, ‘We don’t have a toilet. Why didn’t you go at home?’ If they are allowed, she says, they are usually expected to use the separate ‘servants’ toilet’, which is outside the building and often in a poor condition. ‘My girls come to me and say, “We just can’t go there, it’s filthy”,’ explains Rita.

Dying to go

For women unable to access toilets at work, finding somewhere to relieve themselves throughout the day can be a tricky and time-consuming business – especially if they also have to travel long distances to get to work. Commuter trains stations outside Kolkata often do not have toilets at all; and busy, central stations like Dhakuria and Bagha Jatin tend to cater only for men. Where women’s toilets do exist in train stations and around the city, they are often highly unsanitary or pay-per-use (sometimes both). There is a lack of official data on the number of public toilets in Kolkata but it is estimated that there are approximately 200 toilets in the city (170 run by the government and 30 run by a private organisation).

As a result, many women simply stop by the road or in a field, as Mithu used to do; while others admit to going ‘in secret’ in their employers’ houses. ‘Sometimes when I’m washing clothes, I just keep the door shut and do what I need to do,’ says Malati, a domestic worker from Canning, South 24 Parganas. ‘What else can I do?’ Likewise, for Archana – also from South 24 Parganas – traipsing back and forth to the servants’ toilet is unnecessarily tiring and time-consuming. ‘Why should I have to?’ she protests.

A toilet for a shirt, but not for the domestic worker. Credit: Ben Dalton/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A bathroom for sahib’s shirt, but not for the domestic worker. Credit: Ben Dalton/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Going to the toilet out in the open entails safety risks for women; but, equally, stealing a moment while washing their employers’ clothes can mean being caught and fired. Malati and Archana have heard about employers telling women ‘not to come back’ after having realised what they were doing behind a closed door.

For those unable or unwilling to take such risks, going to work in the city simply means not being able to access a toilet all day – something which is not only extremely uncomfortable (particularly so for women who are pregnant or menstruating), but has been linked with the development of urinary tract infections.

Apart from these difficulties, Mithu believes that the situation has in others ways improved for domestic workers in Kolkata. She explains how earlier employers would throw the plates and cups she would use under the stairs or on the floor – ‘in dirty places’ – but now keep them together with their own. She is also given better utensils, ‘not broken ones like before.’

The shift away from live-in forms of domestic service has arguably brought increased autonomy and bargaining power for many domestic workers; and, in some cases, may have also contributed to better treatment by employers who are increasingly aware of the fragile nature of the employment relationship. As demonstrated by the recent outrage over BookmyBai.com (a website designed to allow employers to select domestic workers based on categories such as religion and region of origin and which has been accused of facilitating discrimination, particularly towards Muslim workers) there has also been increased consciousness in India and around the world about the treatment and working conditions of those we employ to clean our homes, cook our food and look after our loved ones.

Yet much like how in Europe and the United States immigrant women and women of colour are often understood to be ‘suited’ to paid domestic work, overlooking the immigration policies and structural inequalities that limit their options for employment, domestic work in India remains both task- and caste-driven. The extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste is particularly evident when considering the bathroom cleaner or ‘sweeper’ who is, as Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum point out, ‘almost always exclusively that, and always belongs to the lowest castes.’

A chipped plate of her own

Domestic workers’ everyday experiences of exclusion and indignity likewise expose the inconsistency of West Bengal’s reputation as a progressive and ‘post-caste’ society. Mithu is not only still expected to use separate utensils for eating and drinking in the houses where she works, but also only asks to use the toilet ‘when it’s urgent’ and feels embarrassed doing so, her sense of shame indicating that such requests are ‘inappropriate’ and best avoided. Likewise, Durga – a domestic worker from the Canning area – describes how she is frequently scolded for touching things around the house. ‘They tell me to wash my hands constantly and say, “Don’t touch this. Don’t touch that”’ – suggesting that the notion of the ‘polluted/polluting’ domestic worker continues to hold relevance for upper and middle-class Bengalis, even though the prohibition of caste discrimination has made it socially unacceptable to admit it.

Holding it as she heads home. Credit: Animesh Hazra

Holding it as she heads home. Credit: Animesh Hazra

Anchita Ghatak, one of the founders of Parichiti (an NGO that works with domestic workers in Kolkata), believes that rather than having been rooted out, casteist ideas about purity and pollution have instead been ‘modernised’ into a more socially-acceptable discourse about class, literacy, and hygiene – a pattern which has been observed in other parts of India. Whereas employers may have once explicitly invoked caste in order to bar domestic workers from using the toilet (as well as from other parts of the house), today they are more likely to claim that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets and are ‘too uneducated’ to learn.

Rita sympathises with her clients when they complain to her about domestic workers misusing toilets in their homes. ‘When some of the girls come here too, they don’t flush. I walk in and have to see it!’ she says, exasperated. Like many of her clients, Rita believes these problems are the result of women’s lack of awareness about modern hygiene and the functioning of toilets; and, in a way, she is right. There is a learning process involved with toilet use. After all, many toilets in upper- and middle-class homes, particularly those found in modern apartment buildings, have been built in the ‘western’ style and will be at first unfamiliar to people commuting from rural areas or living in less-affluent areas. This is why Rita urges clients to ‘teach’ their domestic employees what to do.

An excuse that doesn’t wash

Broom handles. Credit: Meena Kadri

Broom handles. Credit: Meena Kadri

Yet, the fact that in most cases Rita ends up agreeing to ‘discontinue’ workers at the request of employers who are reluctant to demonstrate how to use the toilet reveals something more significant about the ways in which employers view domestic workers and their labour. Given that it is not uncommon to find domestic workers operating a wide range of technology and machinery (water filters, washing machines, microwaves), employer reluctance cannot be explained by claims that their instruction would be wasted, that domestic workers are ‘uneducable’. Rather, it points to a more insidious belief among employers that domestic workers are not only unaware of hygiene but are themselves ‘unhygienic’.

‘We pour from the same bottle but use separate glasses,’ says Mithu, illustrating how, despite improvements in working conditions, employers maintain physical and ritual distance from domestic workers who they consider to be ‘unclean’. Subsequently, while women like Mithu are at once entrusted with cleaning their employer’s homes, cooking their food, and caring for their children, they are, in Ghatak’s words, simultaneously ‘not deemed hygienic enough to use their toilets or eat off their plates’. Such experiences of exclusion and indignity tend to be missed in studies that use simplistic indicators to determine the prevalence of untouchability, such as whether a person would allow a member of the Schedules Castes to enter their kitchen.

If hygiene is the primary concern for employers, then why do so few invest in decent cleaning equipment and protective clothing for their ‘maids’?

The hygienist discourse is not only inconsistent and contradictory; it is also based on an inaccurate and demeaning characterisation of domestic workers which both overlooks and perpetuates the sub-standard conditions under which they toil. If hygiene is the primary concern for employers, then why do so few invest in decent cleaning equipment and protective clothing for their ‘maids’? Surely limiting domestic workers’ access to the bathroom (where there may be soap and running water) also makes little sense if the aim is to promote health and prevent disease in the home. Needless to say, the situation might be considerably different if the upper and middle classes had to clean their own floors and toilets. Indeed, such work might even cease to be seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting’ and instead be treated with the respect it deserves.

Considering the long history of caste-based discrimination affecting domestic workers in India, and the contemporary forms of exclusion and indignity experienced by Mithu and others, it is not enough for employers to say ‘we have a separate toilet’ or ‘we don’t refuse them when they ask’. If we are to break the taboo around toilet-use and challenge untouchability in all its forms, we must go further by sharing utensils and offering the use of our toilets even when they do not ask – preferably the same ones we use.

Rita’s name and the names of domestic workers have been changed to protect their identities.

Joyeeta Dey is a Research Associate at Pratichi Institute. Follow her on Twitter @joyeeta19
Lauren Wilks is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenWilks01

  • Anna

    This notion that the upper caste and educated people are somehow more hygienic is not true according to my observation. The toilets in airports and upper class multiplexes in cities are in many cases dirty inspite of these establishments employing people to constantly clean the toilets. I studied in a so-called elite educational institution in India. Almost all the girls in my wing of the hostel came from rich or middle class families. However, they often failed to follow basic hygienic practices in maintaining the common toilets and bathrooms clean. In fact, I have heard the cleaning staff complain many a times that they are people too. These educated and enlightened kids must be so used to someone else cleaning up their **** all the time!

  • Vidya Arvind

    100% agree that domestic help must be treated in a humane way. Their contribution to the well being and smooth functioning of a family cannot be ignored. But despite the humane treatment and demanding of rights, many of them do not wash the vessels very well and it is a fact that many domestic help do not learn how to use the toilet correctly. they blatantly say, mujhe yeh sab ki aadat nahi hai. So the employer has no option but to direct them to the worker’s toilet in the building, the condition of which speaks volumes about the hygiene standards of the users.

    Pls also do not forget that not all maids are innocents from the villages that are exploited. Many of them are only concerned about their rights and not their duties. if you remind them periodically to sweep well in the corners or clean the cups free of tea stains, they invariably say bhabhi, aap bahut ‘kit-kit’ karte hain….A lot of employers do end up paying well and agree to many demands of the maids. (fat festival bonuses, new clothes, payment of fees for kids education, not to forget the interest free soft loans at short notice and the waiving away of them in case of non payment, putting up with fake sob stories and unexplained absences, TV time for help when there is no work in the afternoons)

    And what is wrong in asking them to bathe and wear clean clothes to work and wash their hands before handling food? It is well known that the poor fall prey to many diseases because they are not aware of the importance of hygiene. Even when they are made aware, it is finally their personal choice whether or not they adhere to the standards demanded by the employer. BTW, Dont we also adhere to a proper dress code and behaviour at our workplaces?

    Pls understand that given the nature of the work done by house help, a certain healthy professional ‘distance’ between the employer and domestic help is always desirable and need not always be construed as casteist or elitist. Cases of murders by well paid domestic help abound. Employers who vested blind faith in help that was working since a long time have learnt hard lessons. So pls do not project an image that all urban domestic help are victims of casteism or exploitation. On the contrary, many working women are at the mercy of these ‘bais’ on whose efficiency, their very career depends upon. If a family faces domestic help crisis, no prizes for guessing who takes off from work… Pls also take a look at the reviews left by clients on sites which offer domestic help and driver services. The sheer number of negative experiences listed there throws light on who is exploiting whom. In a sad reflection of our times, dishonesty pays more than honesty.

    So pls refrain from publishing one sided articles especially when pertaining to urban drivers and maids.

    • Jay

      Reads like a poor excuse to maintain status quo. If you have to relegate maids to their own toilet, how about providing a clean hygienic facility.

      • Vidya Arvind

        Pls read the comment above mine which speaks of the condition in which maids maintain their own toilets even when they were provided with new toilets and cleaning agents. My very first sentence is completely in favour of treating house help well and with respect. I too have not rejected outright the idea of maids using the employer’s toilets. But I have highlighted the practical difficulties in letting them do so. The employer’s responsibility is not to toilet train the maid beyond a few basic instructions. If she follows them, well and good. If she doesn,t care about hygiene then it matters little whether she uses a public toilet or the one used by other workers in a building complex.

        It surprises me that people comment without reading posts properly. It is also amply clear that you do not have first hand experience in dealing with searching, appointing, training maids and subsequently putting up with their less than satisfactory conduct.

        • Narasimha

          As to the ” satisfactory conduct” of maids -please view it in the context of providing a better work place and improvement of employer engagement .This is what good corporates constantly do to keep their work force engaged on the job. As such I am not sure how many households even pay a fair wage as the state has so far not been able to fix one unlike in developed countries such as the US where there are minimum wage per hour rules for domestic help in most states
          After all in most of the developed world ,except for the super rich –hardly anyone employs household help .You should be thankful that as a ” developing country” we still have the luxuries such as household help even in middle class households due to rampant poverty .

          If you still feel “Maid in India” as a class does not work well and are more bothered about their rights than duties –why do you employ them ?. Can you and your family members not do your own household work and do it as per the desired standards ??

        • Jen

          Don’t you think that ensuring people know how to use a toilet is basic training? If you are going to make money from hiring these girls out don’t you think that it is basic training to ensure they know about adequate personal hygiene and proper and adequate clothing? If you are taking in girls from rural/poor area’s then is it not your duty of care to these women to give them what they need to succeed? How can they have satisfactory conduct if they have no idea what they are dealing with? We teach our children when they are babies how to wash hands and go to the toilet…where is the dignity in sending a woman to work in a place where she has never seen a flushing toilet before much less know how to use one! Perhaps you need to be better at your job so they can be better at theirs.

  • Arista Vie

    There are various other factors involved too, and it is not always a case of a modern version of untouchability as the article seems to imply. Speaking from experience with maids working at our home or those of friends and family:

    Washing hands: The reason the domestic workers are told repeatedly to wash their hands is that they tend to skip doing it. Unless corrected, most will start to handle food items without washing their hands, even right after cleaning the floor. We’ve even had to remind them to wash their hands when they are sitting down to eat their own meal. After the reminders as well, most still try to skip using soap while washing their hands. http://bit.ly/1RBSwN3

    Basic hygiene: Almost daily instances of lack of hygiene (if one doesn’t watch out for it) include things like washing the floor mop in the kitchen sink; putting the cloth for cleaning bathroom counters with the ‘pocha’ or over the broom; to put away without washing, any utensil that might have fallen on the floor; to wipe a spill on the floor with the cloth which is for drying utensils with, and so on. To give the most recent example, a few weeks ago, i walked in to find our maid using a tablespoon to clean the cockroach trap of the kitchen drain, the one in the floor. Other instances, though thankfully not that common, but which one has had to deal with are: not bathing to the point of starting to smell, or bathing but wearing the same clothes without washing for days on end. Even to gently remind someone to bathe daily or wash their clothes regularly is awkward and embarrassing, but sometimes there is no other alternative.

    Bathroom access: Where we stay, the maids who clean the toilets only clean the sinks and the floor. None of them clean the flush. If they are not willing to clean it, why would one be okay with them using it? At my grandmother’s house, the two maids have access to a bathroom, the only requirement being that they keep it clean. They are the only ones who use it, and yet, despite repeated reminders, neither wants to clean it. As a result, my grandmother has to hire a sweeper periodically to get it cleaned. In such a case, why would one give the maids access to every bathroom in the house? When a house is new, even the bathroom the maid gets to use is new. Yet, despite being provided with all the cleaning products, how many maids or servants keep these bathrooms clean? Hardly any. Then why would they get access to the rest of the bathrooms in the house?

  • Vidya Arvind

    Before Anna and Anjor posted, there was a comment above mine posted by someone else which described a personal experience about providing maids new toilets and their maintenance of the same despite providing them the means to do so. However, that comment is mysteriously missing now. My second comment is in reference to this comment.

  • kishore

    REALISTIC ASSESSMENT.

  • Gaurav Ganguly

    And the irony is that women discriminate the most against other women in India.