The Silence That Shrouds the Abuse and Exploitation of Domestic Workers

Indian homes have witnessed a 120% increase in domestic workers in the decade post liberalisation. However, unless there is a major story worth the coverage, the hardships they face on a daily basis are rarely ever talked about.

New Delhi: “A few months ago, I met with an accident. The doctors at the hospital had given up hope. I am lucky to be alive. Earlier, I used to work at six houses, but none of my employers came to visit me nor offered any help. Somehow, I managed to get through my treatment. When I returned after recovering, I found that all six of my employers had hired new maids. If not financial help, they could at least have given my job back. But for them, we’re good enough only as long as we are working. The moment we are in need of help, they turn their backs on us.”

Anita, a domestic worker, pours her heart out sitting in the park of a DDA society in south Delhi. It is a scorching summer afternoon in the month of May. Anita, who is in her early forties, says that she has been working in the society for the past 16 or 17 years. Her husband does not work. She alone runs the household. After recovering, she has found employment at two houses and is earning Rs 4,000 per month.

Anita. Credit: Meenakshi Tewari/The Wire

Recently, a 15-year-old domestic worker Soni Kumari was murdered for demanding her wage. She had gone missing from Jharkhand and was working in Delhi’s East of Kailash. Until her murder, her family did not know that she was in Delhi.

Traditionally, household work is considered a woman’s responsibility. However, in the last few decades, growing participation of women in office jobs has boosted the income level of India’s middle class. With the changing scenario, the need for domestic workers has also increased. Talking of big cities, young couples and single working professionals are dependent on maids or ‘didis’ as they are often referred to.

According to data, Indian homes have witnessed a 120% increase in domestic workers in the decade post liberalisation. While the figure was 7,40,000 in 1991, it has increased to 16.6 lakh in 2001. Today, it has become a norm for a family to depend on a maid. According to data provided by Delhi Labour Organisation, there are over five crore domestic workers in India most of whom are women.

Unless there is a major story worth the coverage, domestic workers are seldom talked about. New Delhi being the national capital, stories of exploitation of domestic workers make headlines once in a while as a large number of women from other states arrive here to earn a livelihood and work as maids.

Located on the outskirts of Delhi is Shahbad Dairy, quite under-developed for an area which is in the neighbourhood of the metropolitan. Few private vehicles are seen here and the city walls are decked with posters advertising jobs for students who have passed high school or Class XII.

Circumventing through narrow streets with overflowing drains, we reach the area’s domestic workers guided by Delhi Labour Union.

The locality has around a thousand houses mostly inhabited by the labour force. The women in these families work as maids in the nearby sectors of Rohini.

One of the residents, 35-year-old Hanifa washes utensils and cleans five homes in Sector 25. Hanifa’s husband left her. She married off her daughter after Class X and her son, who is in Class VII, is dependent on her.

Commenting on her daily routine, Hanifa says, “I finish chores at home by 7 am and then set out to work. It makes me about one hour at each house and I go on foot. I manage to finish work by noon. If someone asks me to do extra work, it may take longer.”

So, when does she have lunch? She smiles and says, “Ours is not an office job that has has a set lunch break. If someone offers something, I eat it. Otherwise, I have lunch only after returning home.”

“Even if we bring lunch to work, there is no time. We’re not considered humans. Even machines need oiling, but people don’t understand it,” Asha interjects. Asha hails from Bihar and has been living here for years. She has been single-handedly raising three kids after her husband’s death. She also works in a nearby colony and earns up to Rs 5,000 a month. She says that working as a maid is not a problem, but sometimes, the attitude of ‘madams’ is offensive. “Most of us are not from around here. Sometimes we need to go to our hometown due to illness or family emergencies. But they do not understand it. They want us to find a substitute if we’re going away. They can celebrate birthdays, but we are not allowed to even visit the family if someone dies.”

The Wire spoke to nearly a dozen domestic workers in the locality most of who complained about the treatment they receive. Often, when they are looking for work, they are asked about their caste and religion. Muslims are usually not hired.

With a rise in the number of crimes in homes, the government made it mandatory to carry out registration and police verification of domestic workers. Though people usually do not carry out police verification, a copy of their identity card is asked for even though the maids themselves know nothing about their employers.

Asha says, “They take a copy of our Aadhaar card. We also have to sign at the entry register. It is helpful in case someone denies payment. It is a proof of attendance.”

When asked if she has been denied payment, Asha says some employers move out without informing them or without clearing the dues.

At the gate, the guard frisks the bags, purse or other baggage the maids carry. Though there are no complaints regarding the guard’s behaviour but sometimes unpleasant situations emerge during the checking. A domestic worker Marjina recalls, “Once one of her employers asked her to throw away a  large cardboard carton. When she was taking it out, the guard stopped her at the gate and let her leave only after it had been confirmed on phone by the employer.” She feels it should not have been an issue.

Asha (Left) and Marjina. Credit: Meenakshi Tewari/The Wire

Several women complain that if their employers give away leftover food, the guard enquires about it too and calls the house in question. As a result, the maids avoid taking anything with them. Though the checking is necessary from a security point of view, to them, it feels like an interrogation for theft. Why would we steal leftover food, they ask?

Thirty-year-old Babli works at four houses in Rohini Sector 11. A mother of four, Babli works for eight hours a day. Her children are away at school most of the time. Her youngest is one-and-a-half years old. She leaves her at a crèche. Earning Rs 5,000 a month, Babli has to pays for her children’s school tuition fee, travel expenses and crèche.

Why can’t she leave the kids at home?

To this question, Bina, a member of Delhi Gharelu Kamgar Sangathan responds, “Incidents of fire are very common in the locality. Also, you cannot imagine what can happen to your child behind you. Recently, fire spread in a neighbouring locality. Besides, there are so many drains and open manholes. Children often fall into them. Some have even drowned.”

Poonam faces a similar situation. Her husband is a driver. She starts work at nine in the morning and returns home around three in the afternoon. She makes Rs 5,500 per month. She spends on school tuition fee for her child, travel, uniform, books, leaving her with no savings. She wants her son to study so that he can find a better life outside the locality. Poonam works every day of the month because even a single day off means a deduction in salary.

Babli (Left) and Poonam. Credit: Meenakshi Tewari/The Wire

All domestic workers share the grievance regarding off days. “We too have a family,” says Asha. “Sometimes, relatives visit us, sometimes our kids get sick. But whenever we ask for leave, ‘madam’ tells us we shouldn’t have taken up the work if we needed leaves. If we stop working, how would we feed the family?”

Across Delhi, these women with little or no education are working in spite of such circumstances as they do not have a choice.

Known for its wide roads, grand houses and expensive cars, south Delhi is comparatively more elitist than the rest of the city. But the maids working in these ‘big’ houses have small hopes from their employers.

Ginni (29) cooks at two houses in a DDA society near Greater Kailash II. Though her husband is employed with a private firm, she needs to work because his salary is not enough to meet the expenses. She says, “I leave for work at 7 am and return by noon. The work is fine but it is offensive that ‘madam’ offers me food in separate utensils. If I can cook food for them, why can’t I eat in the same utensils?”

Ruby (40), who also works as a domestic worker, expresses her displeasure about the issue of discrimination. “They offer us one cup of tea and in return tell us ten things to do.” Ruby, who cleans houses, tells us that one day, she was offered food that was several days old.

Most maids sitting agree that often, the leftover food they are offered is stale or rotten. As a result, they avoid eating anything at these houses.

But since they spend six to seven hours working, what do they eat? According to Bhagwati, “We bring our own food. We have it if we get the time.” Fifty-year-old Bhagwati has been working for the past 12 years. But now she works only at two houses and earns Rs 3,000. Her husband does not work while their children have left them.

Bhagwati. Credit: Meenakshi Tewari/The Wire

Bhagwati says, “There is no fixed time for lunch. No one allows us to sit at their home and eat. They don’t even offer water. Most of us eat only after returning home. Once I was having lunch in the park and felt thirsty. So I knocked on a door and asked for water. Madam, who had opened the door, shouted at me for waking her up from sleep. They do not respect us. What if they have a lot of money? Don’t they depend on us for work? They should have some humanity too.”

Several women complain how they are asked about their religion and caste, which becomes a criterion for hiring them. Ruby is a Muslim and has faced rejection because of her religion. Bhagwati, on the other hand, belongs to an upper caste, yet the bitterness of her experience has left her dejected. It exposes the racist, feudal and irresponsible face of the so-called cosmopolitan homes of big cities.

A few years ago, Bhagwati got sick with chikungunya. She recovered after treatment, but her finger joints remain swollen since then. “Sometimes, my hands become so swollen that I cannot even hold a knife. I cannot pick up weight, but who cares? No one even asks whether I underwent treatment or not. If I take leave, Rs 50 is deducted from the salary.”

Another domestic worker Maya agrees that taking even a day off is not allowed. Bhagwati says, “If I take an off, it comes as a shock to ‘madam’. We are allowed three days off. If there is a death in the family or any other casualty, one has to adjust it within these three days. Can anyone predict such incidents?”

Most maids are forced to work even when they are sick. Thirty-year-old Sita (name changed) works cleaning jobs in four houses. She could not work for three months due to her husband’s illness. When she returned to work, she took only two days off in two months.

Hesitant at first, Sita goes on to share another incident. She says that during winter last year, she had a deep cut in her right palm. Owing to the detergent used for washing utensils, her wound festered and she had to work covering her hand with polythene. “Though some families inquire about our health, most of them do not care,” she says. “Some do not deduct salary but when we go after a gap of a day or two, we have twice or thrice the amount of work awaiting us.”

Ginni quickly interrupts, “Whenever I tell madam that I will be away for one day, she asks me to cook for another day.” Most of them agree with what Ginni has to say – the day after an off is the most hectic for all of them.

Fifty-year-old Sunita (name changed) used to work at a school, but she lost the job after a prolonged illness. Now, she cleans houses. She says, “Madam cares a lot about food, money, clothing and my health. But she does not let me take an off. It gets difficult. I have to get my daughter married. That’s why I need work.”

Mithilesh recalls, “I took leave an emergency leave once. When I returned, madam got very angry and made me clean the toilet, which was not part of my job.”

Mithilesh. Credit: Meenakshi Tewari/The Wire

Have any of them ever been abused besides being scolded? Ruby says, “Madams getting angry is a usual thing. They get mad if we arrive late to work, or if we ask for some worker, or even if we utter something in response.”

According to Bhagwati, “Men in some of the houses usually spoke using abusive words. Even women behaved rudely. I worked there for as long as I could tolerate it. We might be poor, but we also have self-respect. Why should we get abused for no reason?”

All the domestic workers are either completely illiterate or literate enough to just write their names. None of them are aware of the various laws regarding violence, molestation and other abusive behaviours. When asked about sexual violence, they go silent. They deny having any such personal experience but do not dismiss the possibility of such incidents in some houses.

Among the workforce, bonus, appraisals and allowances are commonly discussed issues. But these domestic workers continue to work for the same salary for years.

Kaushal (45) lives with an abusive husband. She says, “If they are paying us Rs 1,600, they continuously compare it with the house next door. Sometimes, new maids arrive here and agree to work for lesser. In five years, I have received a raise of Rs 200.”

Kaushal (in front) and Ruby. Credit: Meenakshi Tewari/The Wire

“I have been working at the same salary for the past two years,” says Sita. “Expenses have increased and so has inflation; but the salary is the same. One day I gathered the courage to ask for a raise, but she outrightly refused. The next day she scolded me so badly for no reason, that I cried.”

“If we demand a raise, they get angry,” says Ruby. “Sometimes they offer us stuff and tell us to ask them what we need instead of asking for money. Perhaps they think that giving away stuff once is better than a raise which they would have to part with every month.”

In 2017, journalist Tripti Lahiri, Asia chief of International website Quartz wrote a book, Maid in India, about the plight of domestic workers. It records tales of domestic workers working especially in Delhi for which Tripti met several maids.

In an interview, Tripti was asked why instead of giving a raise, people prefer to offer clothes and other stuff to maids. Even she finds it surprising that people who are affluent pay domestic workers pittance. In several cases, people offer the workers a place to live but do not give proper wages.

Often the situation takes a bitter turn when demanding a raise in salary ends in charges of theft. Sunita shares her daughter’s experience. “My daughter was employed at a house for Rs 9,000. She had to clean the entire house, wash clothes and utensils. At the end of the first month, they handed her Rs 6,000 and said they would give the rest of the money later. When it continued for the next two months, my daughter complained. In response, madam said that the work was worth Rs 6,000 only. A few days later, she accused my daughter of theft. There was a lot of ruckus. She had been working in the locality for years, why would she steal now? I told her to discharge us instead of making such false accusations. She gathered everyone from the neighbourhood and created a scene. My daughter lost the job besides the money they owed us and the salary for that month. We went there several times, asking for our dues, but her husband abused us so we stopped going there.”

Sunita says domestic workers are often subjected to physical violence simply because they want their salaries. People do not directly dismiss them from work but look for other excuses.

“I started work at one of the houses,” recounts Sita. “A few days later she found a new maid who agreed to work for a lower salary. But she could not tell me off directly so she accused me of stealing a mobile phone one day. I was new in Delhi then so I just cried. She called the police but made one mistake. She made the call from the number she complained was missing. But the police did not say anything to her.”

To dismiss maids from work by accusing them of theft is a fairly common practice by employers. “People do not trust us,” Kaushal says. “It is true there are maids who steal. But how can those who have been working here for years steal? One of them was so suspicious that she had got a camera installed in the kitchen.”

To dismiss maids from work by accusing them of theft is a fairly common practice by employers. Credit: Reuters

To dismiss maids from work by accusing them of theft is a fairly common practice by employers. Credit: Reuters

In November 2017, an unusual campaign, Right to Pee, was started by an organisation in Maharashtra. The campaign was launched to highlight the lack of clean and safe public toilets in the city and bring it to the notice of the chief minister.

Women organisations raise the issue of lack of toilets in urban spaces and highways. It included online campaigns as well. Domestic workers in our homes are deprived of these facilities as well. They are not allowed to use the toilets in the houses where they work. They cannot use toilets even when they are menstruating or have some problems, despite cleaning those toilets themselves.

Bhagwati suffers from a urinary problem and she needs to use the toilet often. She tells us hesitatingly, “I relieve myself behind some bushes or parked vehicles. If someone finds me, they yell at me. But nobody understands that if I had a place to urinate, I wouldn’t be doing it in public.”

Almost all maids complain of having suffered from urinary tract infection due to holding in for long durations. They suggest that if people cannot allow them to use their toilets, they should arrange for a public toilet in the colony.

Why is it that the upper and middle-class population of the country conscious of their rights is totally indifferent towards the rights of workers in their own homes? What is the reason behind such discrimination?

Tripti Lahiri says, “The problem is that it is not considered wrong, because it has gone on for generations and is a common practice.”

“Borders between countries are marked by fences, but borders between classes are marked out by where you may sit, where you may go to the bathroom, and where and with whom you may eat,” she writes in her book Maid in India.

Baby Kumari has a long association with Dilli Gharelu Kamgar Sangathan working for the right of domestic workers. She considers class difference as one of the reasons behind such discrimination.

“Class difference is the ugly truth of our society,” she says. “The answer lies in economic inequality. If you look at the current system in our country, it is mostly capitalistic where one section of the society remains deprived while the other which possesses resources, economic facilities and keeps prospering. For this, not only are economic policies to blame but the capitalistic system which is mainly characterised by unequal progress. All attempts to reduce the gap are useless. And from the current regime, there is hardly any such expectation. Earlier governments made efforts to provide some relief, but the condition of the deprived class has not changed.”

What does the law say?

To protect the rights of domestic workers, the Domestic Workers’ Welfare and Social Security Bill has been presented, which talks of ensuring the rights of domestic workers by setting up a board at district to state and central government levels. But due to non-passage of the Bill, no directives have been issued regarding minimum wages, fixed working hours, leaves, social security, maternity leave, daycare, work environment, salary and other allowances.

Police in action against villagers who gathered at Mahagun Society to protest after a domestic worker was allegedly beaten up by her employers on suspicion of theft, in Noida on July 12, 2017.  Credit: PTI

Although, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have taken steps. Some states have also fixed minimum wages for them while others have set up welfare boards. However, in the absence of a proper law, a large section of domestic workers is forced to work without any labour laws.

Shakti Vahini is an organisation that has long been working on matters regarding domestic workers and human trafficking. Hrishikant is associated with the organisation. He says, “Women and young girls working at homes are not even aware where to complain if they face any kind of harassment. After the sequence of events that transpired in Mahagun Society, the district officer informed all RWAs to post rules related to workers on the notice boards. These workers have no knowledge regarding any of the laws.”

There are only two laws in the country that grant domestic workers ‘labour’ status. First, Unorganised Labour Social Security Act, 2008 and second, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013. But none of the laws talks about any legal framework regarding rights of domestic workers.

Clearly, there is no legal way of hearing complaints of domestic workers. According to figures provided by National Crime Records Bureau, cases of violence on domestic workers have been on the rise year after year. After the incident at Mahagun Society came to light where a domestic worker had been taken hostage over financial dispute, people have been raising voice in support of this section of the society. The Ministry of Labour sought suggestions for the pending bill and talked of passing it as soon as possible.

But the way parliament has failed to function over the last few sessions, the issue of domestic workers is a cry in wilderness. Rishikant considers the government’s negligence responsible for the delay in the passage of the bill. “I do not understand why the bill is taking so long to be passed. Why is the central government, or Delhi government, not introducing a law since so many cases are reported here daily. This Bill by the central government did not even receive cabinet approval. By not enacting a law, the message is clear that exploitation will continue and the government will turn a blind eye.”

According to media reports, the draft of the Bill is fully prepared and there is a chance it may be passed in the next session.

However, the attitude of the government towards the plight of domestic workers has been quite shaky. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is working to ensure the rights of domestic workers worldwide. Though India signed the 189th Treaty of ILO, which specifically speaks about the rights of domestic workers, it has not completely accepted it.

According to figures provided by National Crime Records Bureau, cases of violence on domestic workers have been on the rise year after year. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

According to figures provided by National Crime Records Bureau, cases of violence on domestic workers have been on the rise year after year. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

ILO’s national project coordinator Sunita Elluri believes that though several Indian states are talking about minimum wages for domestic workers, there is still not an efficient mechanism to address their issues.

Will the passing of a law solve all the problems? According to Akhil Kumar at The Wire, who has long been reporting on issues of workers, the answer is no. He says, “On paper, there are still stringent laws for workers but who follows those rules? If you talk about Delhi, there are not enough labour inspectors here to ensure the compliance of the laws regarding labour. It is important not only to enact laws but to monitor their implementation as well.”

Since the problems faced by domestic workers are largely behavioural, can law bring about a change in attitude of the ‘employer’ class? Baby Kumari says, “If there is a law for these workers under Right to life, it cannot be guaranteed that there will be a change in the attitude in the homes where they work. The government needs to keep a watch. A change of heart is not possible. The Bill will be welcomed but the government needs to set up committees and monitor it.”

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.