Women's issues
The demands and aspirations of domestic employees are not all that different from ours. Then why the differentiation?
Wikimedia Commons/Representational image

On May 15, the Supreme Court, said that a bride or daughter-in-law should be treated as family and not as a housemaid and that the respect she deserves in her marital home is a reflection of “the sensitivity of a civilized society." The court’s statement was part of a verdict upholding the sentence of seven-year jail term to a man for torturing his wife, who committed suicide,

Reading the court’s observation, one among others about brides in the country, the question arises: Is mistreating and exploiting the housemaid so normal that it says nothing about sensitive and civilised society?

While the apex court probably made the statement in good faith, it betrays the possibility of an inherent class bias within us. And by virtue of being an exemplar body of law whose statements directly affect future cases, good faith is not reason enough to propagate the bias. The (unintended) message it sends to the public is that while it is not okay for a bride to be “thrown out of her matrimonial home at any time,” her suffering is obviously more than that of a domestic helper being treated callously.

The Supreme Court added that the abuse that some brides go through at the hands of the husband and his relatives perpetuates “a feeling of emotional numbness in society.” Are we not already quite numb when we completely forget that all the mentioned abuses – burning, beating, intimidation, harassment and more – are routinely inflicted on housemaids as well?

There are regular reports of domestic helps being mistreated at the hands of their employers. Some are harassed and driven to commit suicide, others are sexually abused, beaten and even starved – age and sex no bar. Moreover, levels of media attention often vary with the brutality of abuse and the celebrity stature of the abuser, which means many cases get brushed under the carpet – until something with enough shock value occurs.

But the more routine conversation for us, the self-assured middle-class with high disposable incomes and hectic working hours, to get a good domestic help these days. They ask for more money, demand holidays and even ask to be let off early sometimes. Sometimes, they pour themselves half a cup of tea while preparing yours. Such audacity!

The demands and aspirations of domestic employees are not all that different from ours. Everyone wants to move up the economic ladder, and domestic workers are no different. Then why is it okay to turn a blind eye towards their desire for a better standard of living, and for better conditions of work?

Differentiation based on class and caste has always existed in women’s issues. However, the Supreme Court’s comparison reinforces the popular notion that not only does housework have less dignity than ‘real work’ but also that the lower classes must get in line to fulfil their ambitions.    

The fact that there is no proper documentation for domestic workers also adds salt to their wounds. A preliminary search for statistics on workers in the domestic sector reveals conflicting numbers with vast discrepancies. A 2013 report in DNA says that according to data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), there are 2.52 million domestic workers in India. However, NGO sources peg the number at 7 million.

Further, since domestic workers are a part of the unorganized sector, they do not fall under the purview of Minimum Wages Act 1948. This means that their wages rely solely on their bargaining power, which does not count for much given the desperation of their economic situation and the general perception of the domestic workforce as greedy and untrustworthy. According to a report in Live Mint, a 2011 study by NSSO revealed that female domestic workers in cities earned only half of what workers earn in other informal sectors.

Half-hearted attempts have been made to prepare a legal framework for their economic as well as human rights. However, the ‘National Policy for Domestic Workers’ remains pending without approval from the Union cabinet.  

And so, while the workforce of housemaids exists without legal safeguards, rights and institutional framework, we, the upper classes take pride in our benevolence. We give them work (so what they are underpaid and it is physically taxing?), leftover food (it’s better than the drab stuff they must have at home) and faded clothes (they are still new for them!) and maybe an extra hundred rupees on a festival after making them agree to work for half a day at least (I don’t want to do housework on a holiday!).

Here is another excerpt from the Supreme Court judgement:

“It is a matter of grave concern and shame that brides are burned or otherwise their life-sparks are extinguished by torture, both physical and mental” … “because of cruelty and harassment meted out to the nascent brides, treating them with total insensitivity, destroying their desire to live and forcing them to commit suicide, a brutal self-humiliation of life.”

If we replace the word ‘brides’ with ‘housemaids’, everything else still holds true. Can we continue to ignore that truth?