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Domestic workers need more protection in India

Last updated on: December 23, 2013 16:37 IST

From mistreatment, sexual harassment to low wages, domestic workers are in a poor state in India with hardly any legal protections, says Neeta Kolhatkar.

The Devyani Khobragade diplomatic wrangle, which is being sorted at the ministry levels between India and United States, has definitely highlighted a pertinent issue -- how we Indians treat our domestic help. The stories of mistreatment can come as a shocker for those who think India has shed her feudal, caste-based system.

To begin with I have a huge grouse of the usage of the word ‘servant’ which as per the Oxford dictionary is originally an old French word “For employing a person to perform domestic duties.” It reeks of colonial hangover, as the term ‘servant’ was used by the British for hired Indian domestic help. We Indians are still feudal by nature and hence find it tough to shed this word, much worse, the attitude that comes along with it.

In many cases we have seen how young maids and cooks are often sexually targeted by male employers. The case of actor Shiney Ahuja was a rare one, where the maid reported the incident of rape and she got help from other neighbours who backed her story.

As a child I remember the men from Western ghats would come to Mumbai to work as domestic help, were termed as ghatis. A word that later turned into a slang to call Maharashtrians, especially the Marathi-speaking ones who could not communicate in English. After the violent, political ideology of certain ‘Marathi manoos’ parties, the term ghati faded from public speech.

In fact, decades ago in Girgaum, the neighbourhood full-time helps were called Pandharis -- men who worked and lived in the houses of rich folks. Spoken in hushed whispers was also that these Pandharis doubled up as male companions for the ladies, whose rich husbands often ignored them. And their children were looked after by the families.

With time the Pandharis were seen as bonded labour and the government banned this practice and soon not only the term, this sort of employment too disappeared from Mumbai. In fact a much worse form of domestic employment that is has been well-hidden is that of employing child labour. It is only since last seven years that the elite in Mumbai have been compelled to stop employing child labour, which is most often cheap labour too. This is because the government of Maharashtra had become stricter in implementing the anti-child labour laws.

I recollect how a senior lady journalist, who knew I used to go to tribal villages in Thane district, wanted me to bring back a tribal girl to work in her house. She tried to sweet talk me, not realising she her actions could’ve have scandalous repercussions. She had told me how she and her husband would go to work and they had two sons who need to be taken care of. She thought the girl could stay home, play with the boys and the couple would take care of the help’s education, lodging and boarding. She thought of it as an act of charity.

Now if this is scandalous, the fact that our very own ‘public servants’ who frame the rules and policies, are often the first ones to break them. Many bureaucrats and especially retired Indian Police Service officers expect their orderlies to continue to give them their shoes, make them wear them and are often treated in inhuman ways. The stories of bureaucrats in remote districts are gory enough to make to the corridors of Mantralaya. One hears these stories lesser now but it may still be long before these things stopped.

Many employ underage girls brought from remote villages on the pretext of educating them. The families of these girls are paid pittance and one doesn’t know the wages paid to the girls. In Delhi, many families too are known to employ such young girls, who are often locked inside their houses, under the pretext that it is unsafe for village, small-town girls to go out alone. So, while the families are away till late hours, the girls sit holed up in apartments, not stepping out for days.

And the last issue that the biggest overhaul in domestic workers sector is the payment of wages. Many households shy away from paying their non-full time domestic help even three-figure wages. 

Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters

Neeta Kolhatkar