Behind the Curtains- The Invisible Domestic Help who drives India for little
Posted on August 29, 2018
As the world’s largest democracy and the second fastest growing economy India has traveled a long and precarious path. There has been a substantial yet subtle technical revolution in every sector of the economy from education to the non-government sector- the wave of change is discernible. However there is a conflict that doesn’t seem to uproot itself from the minds of most Indians; in fact over the years it has spread its branches deeper into the society and the public discourse.
The class conflict is still manifested with all the development that is taking place, the fact that the new emerging urban middle class does not view certain people as their equals is both barbaric and appalling. The consequences of such a mindset is particularly experienced by the 4.2 million people who belong to the domestic sector industry. Most of the people working as domestic servants hail from lesser developed regions like Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam and are prone to discrimination. The lack of job opportunities in their hometown compels them to seek domestic workers jobs in the urban and metropolitan spaces. This is corroborated by the fact that the industry has no legal recognition by the government of India therefore making the workers vulnerable to exploitative work environment, lack of job and social security along with the highest levels of instability in their income.
These workers from the pivotal backbone of most of the urban houses in our country, from buying grocery for the household to cleaning the bathrooms they effectively have a role to play in every trivial dynamic of the opulent household. The labour they provide dwarfs the remuneration they receive. Their entire life depends on the will and the mood of their employer who exposes them to long and vigorous working hours, gross discrimination, acceptance and in many instances sexual abuse. The informal nature of the sector along with the fear of losing a job creates a space that virtually remains outside the jurisdiction of the law. This creates a blind spot that is misused by those in power and snatches away the audacity of female domestic workers to report any abuse or conduct of mis-behaviour against them. In this sense, it is practically impossible to truly contemplate the real experiences of female workers.
Munni Thapa, a 32-year-old domestic worker from Assam had an unreservedly different plan for her life. She spent most of her childhood in the lush green tea gardens where her parents worked as tea pickers. As a child, her greatest ambition was to have her own family and kids. She fell in love when she was 13 and got married five years later. She had everything she wished for thereafter a loving husband and two beautiful daughters who meant the world to her. However, things started to change when she discovered a tumour in her lungs and the couple was forced to spend their entire savings on hospital bills. Lack of medical insurance cost them approximately eighty thousand rupees. In fact, the absence of education and awareness amongst the poor in India about health insurance results in huge chunks of their savings getting wasted in healthcare. A few years after this Munni’s husband got a serious fracture and was admitted to the hospital. The source cut of the sole breadwinner of the house resulted in a crisis in her life. She had no option but to earn herself and lack of any educational qualifications resulted in her joining the domestic workers sector in New delhi. She had never stepped out of her state before this in her life and now she was forced to work in unknown conditions far away from her family. At first her family was supportive of her but soon they became rebellious. Her husband starting doubting her intentions and her girls started hated her for not being there for them. “How can i be happy in such a life and a job where i am forced to stay away from my family, no one likes to stay away from their family, the women of my community have started judging me because I am earning money, the men in my community have started spreading rumours about my misconduct in delhi, everyone is doing their bit to break the trust between me and my husband and I on the other hand feel completely lonely in this strange city where my employers treat me as a mundane object which can be used in any way and for any purpose”.
(Photo Courtesy: https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-12-22/indias-invisible-maids)
In her two years as a domestic worker Munni didn’t spend a single penny on herself which was apparent from the single pair of suit she had, the meagre eight thousand that she makes a month all goes in the school fees of her daughters. With the lowest wage possible and the most uncomfortable environment of work she only asks herself one question, was it even worth to leave everything and work like this?, she is still figuring out an answer.
Behind the often smiling faces of most of these workers are a story of struggle that has forced them to be in the position that they are today at. Therefore they require not just our acceptance and approbation but a legality from their country. Out of twenty nine states in the Indian Union only two states, Karnataka and Kerala have legal minimum wages for these workers. Maharashtra is the only state that prohibits any child under the age of 14 to become a domestic worker. The domestic worker industry in neither included in the Maternity Beneficiary Act nor in the Minimum Wage Act. These loosely framed and rarely implement handful of policies do not do justice to the colossal chunk of population that everyday work hard in this unrecognized sector. There is a dire need for formalization of the sector and a pan national law covering all the loopholes and ambiguities existing in it. A sense of responsibility on the part of the employer and a subtle change in the mindset of the people towards their workers would be the short term alterations having significant and long term consequences. A true democracy can only be achieved with bringing up the ability in each of us to view every human with an egalitarian outlook of respect and mutual love and let go of any residues of class biases that we have grown up with.