While the pandemic continues to rage and ravage our lives and the uncertainties of the future endears us to family and friends like it has never done before, my gratitude goes out to those who despite being ubiquitous in our households, are often discounted. As it becomes clearer with each passing day how indispensable the services of our domestic workers are to keep the wheels of our lives turning; ask anyone who had to dust, wash, clean and cook for weeks during the initial phase of the lockdown when there was a strict restriction on movement of domestic helps – it’s then pertinent we show them some empathy.
The Role Played by the Caste System
A few employers have told me, albeit in a lighter vein, how they’d prefer to share their lockdown with their domestic help rather than their family, and while I grimace at those sexist Whatsapp jokes about how a maid is more valuable to a woman than diamonds, I find it ironic that over the years despite their demand increasing manifolds, domestic help are yet to be regarded with due respect and dignity.
However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise given our starkly divided society is based primarily on the rigid Hindu caste system which determines a person’s occupation apart from other aspects of social and religious life. The discrimination against domestic workers and their tribe goes all the way back to the time when those performing domestic services were scorned upon and disregarded as duties of the lowliest of castes. It is evident from the Manusmriti, an ancient text that dates back to more than 1,000 years, such services were considered desirable only of the Shudra, the lowest rank of the traditional four varnas.
Servitude and Slavery
In his attempt to understand how caste, class and gender influence paid domestic work especially in India, sociologists Aban Mehta’s observations in the book titled, Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers, by Judith Rollins, where he mentions of a deep connection between the original concept of ‘domestic work’ and a number of problems that plague domestic workers even today. For instance, one can trace the reason for manual labour being universally denigrated to the origin in domestic servitude and its associated with slavery, for which it was held in contempt in many cultures. The tradition of household duties resting on the shoulders of women and the lack of dignity associated with these roles also goes back to the times when the domestic work was done by the Shudras, mainly the females, who often found themselves in unsafe working conditions, sexually exploited by their employers.
And from ancient times right through medieval ages, until the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, nothing much has changed, except for a few superficial efforts to alleviate their distress. From the archaic terms like ‘servant’ ‘naukar’ ‘bai,’ or ‘ayah’ by which the domestic workers have been known all along, today, we might have progressed to calling them ‘housekeeping’ or ‘support staff’. But, it will take more than a mere change in nomenclature to bridge the traditional divide apparent in our society between servant and master, and actually improve the condition of this group of workers who find themselves ignored and invisible even by the government when it comes to addressing their rights and welfare.
As more women join the workforce, the demand for domestic workers who could perform a wide range of services otherwise done by the woman of the house, which include care-giving, both of the elderly and children, cooking and cleaning – meant these roles had to be filled by another set of working women who comprise 70 percent of the 40 million domestic workers of India. Yet, their labour remains unrecognised under the Indian law and subsequently they do not qualify for social security benefits available to other workers. With hardly any legal provisions to safeguard their rights, it’s imperative that individual employers and families with whom they are employed and live-in with, step up and treat this vulnerable group of service providers with respect.
At a time of total despair when many find themselves alone, isolated and without any support system, heart-warming stories of maids and domestic helps who out of their own good will have offered to move in with their helpless employers, to attend to their needs and stand by them when nobody else did – is one of the silver linings in these dark times. Some employers too have shown the way who continue to pay their domestic workers their full salary despite them having to go on forced leave. And even if this might seem like an aberration, it just goes to show how far a little compassion can go if one makes an effort to forge a bond of humanity between two human beings, employer and employee.
A Little Empathy Never Hurts
Yet, for every compassionate employer, there are hundreds who mistreat their domestic help, overwork and underpay them, and unfortunately this is something that has become even more pronounced in the recent crisis with reports pouring in about domestic workers losing their jobs and being blamed for spreading the virus. Last May, according to SEWA Bharat’s study from Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, out of the 160 maids surveyed, as many as 82 percent had been denied their wages during lockdown.
The list of inhuman and unfair treatment meted out to domestic workers is long. From young nannies we see at children’s birthday parties, who aren’t allowed a meal, while they watch over the children under their care enjoy the delectable fare; to the practice of separate washrooms and lifts designated for maids and drivers in upmarket gated communities – this has sadly become routine behaviour. And for want of better legal redress, domestic workers find themselves at the mercy of such heartless employers, who far from conceding apathy, still manage to sleep remarkably well at night.
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