No Maid Of Honour

The evolution of man – isn’t it such an oxymoron? You know, that humans have travelled three million years from treetops to civilization, is debatable today. How else will you explain the fact that a 29 year old dental surgeon asks her maid to lick food from her plate and not use her hands? It’s difficult to distinguish between the two women actually. While Jagriti Singh in her sense of reality may believe that her maids are animals, can we please ask her to look into a mirror? Because in the tales of sordid, animal-like treatment meted out to house helps that are emerging all so often now, the animal clearly resides in those who employ these women.

Just for a moment imagine your home without these women. They leave their homes, sometimes separated from their kith and kiln to make your home their own. Or so they imagine. In an ideal world they would like to consider you as family and your home as their home which they laboriously sweep, swab and sparkle every day. They would serve you meals with as much warmth as they would their own family. They would look after your children as if their own. Care for the elderly as if they were their own parents. Except that this idyllic world is just a mirage. At least it was for Rakhi Bhadra, the maid who was discovered dead in Jagriti and husband MP Dhananjay Singh’s home on Diwali day. If her co-worker Meena Sardar is to be believed that then the beastly tales of torture and inhuman treatment are far from over. 35 year Meena Sardar was discovered from with marks of beatings and burn injuries. Left with a broken hip, Meena is receiving treatment at RML Hospital in New Delhi. After they discovered that Rakhi had succumbed to her injuries, and afraid that the cops would find a much battered Meena, Jagriti and Dhanajay Singh had bundled the latter off to a friend’s house.

domestic maid - HinduPhoto Courtesy – The Hindu

India – it is no country for women. If rapes and stories of hostility project a dismal picture of the country’s women folk, it is really no country for the poor either. God save you if you are a poor woman! Or else what explains the barbaric stories of human trafficking and abuse that are emerging of the homes in the city? Incidentally, last week was the birth of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN) – a federation of representatives of 42 countries, including India. But India does not recognize its maids and house helps as workers. So even though the term ‘domestic worker’ continues to be abused, India is not a country that recognizes the home as a workplace; neither does it consider house helps as workers because they are usually engaged in personal service.

It’s been three years since the National Council of Women (NCW) drafted the “Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act 2010” Bill highlighting the exploitative nature of domestic work by spurious placement agencies. The draft policy reads – “All domestic workers, employers or service providers shall be registered, within one month of the commencement of the employment of domestic worker, in the household, with the ‘District Domestic Labour Welfare Board.” It also has provisions for registering part-time domestic workers and migrant domestic workers.  Apart from this, it clearly mandates that no child shall be employed as a domestic worker or for any such incidental or ancillary work. The bill is yet to be passed.

There is also the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. In spirit is covers domestic workers but some critical elements like maternity benefits and disability remain to be effectively put into practice. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have welfare boards but the states’ population of domestic workers is unaware of their rights.

5th September marked another historical day. It marked the birth of ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers or C189. This groundbreaking new treaty sets to establish the first global standards for the working condition of more than 50 million domestic workers worldwide.  The treaty aims to bring domestic workers at par with other workers, entitling them with weekly offs, minimum wages and vacations. India voted in favour of it but we don’t know if it has begun working on it yet.

Lest we forget…exactly a month ago another startling case of domestic worker abuse emerged. A tribal from a village in Jharkhand was found with an open wound on her head and several wounds on her body. The teenager told the police that her employer left her in a semi-naked state such that she wouldn’t run away. She also said that her employee would attack her with broom and knives. In all the months she was employed, she was never given leave for paid a single month’s salary. The employer in this case was a 40 year old senior employee in French multinational company and lived in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

In between the Vasant Kunj incident and the death of Rakhi Bhadra came also the story of a 13 year old girl who was left locked up in her house while her employer, an airhostess went off to Australia. This story was again strikingly similar to the story of another underage maid in the city. In March 2012, a 13 year old girl was rescued from a flat in Dwarka. Her employers, a doctor couple were holidaying in Thailand while they left their maid with no food except flour and salt. The food and ration, they warned, was marked and they installed CCTV in their house and if found stealing, they would beat her up when they returned. The almost starved girl was rescued when neighbours and other domestic workers in the neighbourhood found her crying on the balcony.

A point worthy of note is that all the employers in these stories are well-placed individuals. If education and one’s place in society is anything to define a person, then surely doctors, a well-bred professional and an air hostess are epitomes of good behavior…at least to the public eye. What happens behind closed doors is another story. The bestiality and animal behavior unleashes itself, leaving the defenseless and poor house help at the receiving end.

If Meena Sardar’s narrative is to be believed then this is the nasty end to the squalid state of affairs in our homes. Beaten, stripped, starved and killed…is there really no other end?

In a country divided by class, the feudal notions of the employer and employee in our minds are too rigid. The employer by nature assumes his role as the oppressor and the employee accepts his position as the oppressed. What else can explain maids being made to stand out of restaurants or being made to cramp inside the boot of a Wagon R car? Or drivers who are asked to sleep in the garage? Or maids who have to sleep on the cold floor in winters with a torn blanket? Spare a thought for that woman and in fact all those who make your life simpler. Consider those people who do your chores of you. Consider your rights as a human being and see what they get in turn. It is not enough to treat your own house help with dignity and respect. Not so long ago, we were all gushing about the Tanishq Ad that showed a dusky woman getting married for the second time. We all went singing praises for it. But does anyone remember another ad, the one that claimed to change the air?

The ad showed a maid being appreciated for her culinary skills. Her employer asks her to join the family at the table. She watches on gingerly and sits down apologetically…would you do the same?  Hawa Badlegi?

Long time back when I was doing my postgraduate studies, one of our professors chose to give us some life lessons. We kept the curriculum aside and discussed what it takes to make a career. He told us about passion, determination, ambition and all that matters. But the one thing that struck a chord with me that day is when he said, “Learn to buy time.” We cannot do everything. No matter if you are a man or a woman, there will be thousands of things that you will have to do; sometimes as a professional, at others as a member of the family. And many times you will need someone to fill in for you. These people, who look after our homes and families while we are at work, are the people we buy our time from. Someone is traveling a distance to drive you in your car, so that you don’t have to bother about the traffic and can use the time instead to check your emails. Someone is willing to clean your dishes because you choose to sleep a little late. Or because you want to have an enviable garden, someone comes to your house to prune your bushes. And because you want to have a career, someone else decides to leave her kids behind to raise yours. How are these people different from you? To my professor’s lesson, I would add my own…one that I have lived and learned.

“Learn to respect the person who is selling you his/her time.”

Respect. Don’t we all want that? How is your domestic help any different?

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