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Labour

Male Domestic Care Workers Also Face Employer Apathy

From lack of access to basic facilities and unwarranted suspicions, male domestic workers are also undervalued and dehumanised. They also want to be included in unionisation and policy recommendations that will improve their lives.

In August 2022, we conducted fieldwork on India’s vastly heterogeneous Indian domestic care service sector, which has gained major attention since the COVID-19 pandemic. Inside a well-manicured park, in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Delhi, we bump into Raju, an affable live-in domestic worker. He is happy to share his story. He migrated from a small city in Uttar Pradesh with the help of his chacha (his father’s younger brother).

Soon, a group of men join us and Raju requests that we hear their worldview and lived experience. They are drivers, cooks, and a watchman (chowkidar), most of whom are live-out employees. They offer their packed lunch of chapattis, achar, sabzi and daal. Just outside the park, a few metres from where we are all sitting, a large signboard stares us in the face. The signboard, in menacing language, reads, “By Order from the Resident Welfare Association: ‘GUARDS AND DRIVERS ARE REQUESTED NOT TO URINATE IN BACK LANES AND GARDENS. USE TOILET FACILITY BY YOUR EMPLOYER’.”

Such signboards are now all too common in upper-class neighbourhoods and gated communities, while others call for a strict separation between domestic care workers and the rest of the middle classes. They underline the class divide and also reflect on the employers’ attitude towards their workers as well as apathy on the part of the state towards domestic workers.

The discussion with Raju and his peers shifts to the above signboard – but none of them are surprised, perturbed, or shocked. As per their accounts, they are used to navigating a class divide, segregation, and lack of basic in-house facilities.

While their employment stories may begin with ‘safe’ narratives – such as, ‘they treat me like family’, ‘I am attached to my employer’s children’, and ‘I am undertaking this work so as to educate my children’ – what remains unsaid is the fact that many of them even lack basic facilities at their workplaces, including access to toilet and drinking water facilities. It is out of compulsion that these workers, both men and women, relieve themselves in alleyways, parks, and open spaces.

Also read: With No Central Policy, Indian Domestic Workers Left at Mercy of Varied State Laws: Global Report

This has entirely different implications for women and men. It exposes women to violence and harassment, as they have to find desolate, unsafe spots to stay away from the male gaze. For men like Vinod, the driver who works with Raju, the issue is different. He says:

“I really do not like to urinate or defecate in public spaces where women and children pass by. While women think that ‘we men’ (mard log) are entitled to public spaces (kabza), I find it humiliating to pass urine in front of cars and out in the open. This is a sad part of our job, but we rarely complain. There are times when we are desperately finding spaces and spots to urinate, but our employers think we are wasting time or have disappeared to gossip.”

Indeed, employers of domestic workers are rarely held accountable for their failure to provide basic facilities at the workplace. Instead, they often look down on their workers and blame them for being the carriers of dirt and disease.

Raju and Vinod share the health risks of not being allowed to use toilets or allowed to drink water at their employer’s home. Drivers often have to hold their urine for hours on highways and in heavy traffic when they drop their employers to various destinations. They are often expected to carry their own water from home. Many drivers and security guards experience stomach aches, anxiety, bladder infections, and dehydration that rarely surface in conversations around advocacy and legal change.

Representational image. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Jorge Royan/ CC BY-SA 3.0.

It goes without saying that just like their female counterparts, low-paid and casual workers such as Vinod and Raju are invisibilised, undervalued, and dehumanised in private homes.

Alternatively, imagine for a moment if middle-class employers working in formal and institutional settings were to encounter similar signboards. What would happen if the middle classes were denied the use of toilets, daily hand washing, and safe drinking water that would lead to body aches, stomach cramps, and anxiety?

It would be unacceptable for the middle classes and they would use their education, privilege, and class to voice their complaints and leave jobs if basic facilities were not on offer. Yet many middle-class employers have no qualms in denying their own drivers and domestic care workers in-house toilets and other basic amenities. Ironically, it is the workers who look after the employers’ most intimate needs – from caring for children to the elderly and ensuring the safety of homes.

Importantly, during the pandemic, both male and female domestic care workers claimed that their lives and movements were under tight scrutiny, as the middle classes began to associate them (‘the outsiders’) as carriers of COVID-19. Even now, this has meant that drivers, gardeners, and security guards have to sometimes sit for hours outside gates so that employers are satisfied that they are at a safe distance, whilst hand-washing and mask-wearing have intensified.

Yet, the very same male domestic care workers and security guards who are exposed to such practices have a strong counter-narrative that they continue to voice about the spread of the coronavirus. They believe it was the middle classes, foreigners and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who were responsible for the spread of COVID-19.

As part of the many diverse tales we gathered about workers navigating the insecure domestic service and care economy, the men admitted feeling ridiculed, stigmatised and humiliated for the work they undertake, confirming it as their last option in the search for labour market opportunities in liberalising India.

From our anthropological fieldwork, the message we heard is that many men also want to be included in unionisation and policy recommendations that will improve their lives. Hitherto, the main focus had rightly been on informal female domestic care workers, who comprise the majority of domestic service and care sector jobs.

While much has been written about the plight of female workers, men’s experiences of exploitation, dignity, and health risks also need urgent attention so that one of the largest unregulated sectors can address the concerns of both men and women.

Thomas Chambers is a senior lecturer and an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University. Shalini Grover is an assistant professorial research fellow and an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The ethnographic work derives from a recent British Academy Small Research Grants Project.