Domestic workers have legally been defined as people employed to do the housework or allied activities in any household, hence excluding those involved in cleaning or cooking in offices, shops and other such premises. Since domestic service does not come under the category of an industry, domestic workers are not covered under the labour laws of India. There lay India’s first slip-up- it was a short-cut to a destiny of long working hours, less wages and unimaginable forms of harassment for this so-called ‘informal sector’.
India has a beautiful history; the land of Mahabharata and Ramayana, Akbar and Gandhi, countless religions, castes and beliefs. Gandhi aided us in triumphing over the doctrine of untouchability. We have come a long from then but the caste system is still very much the trademark stamp of India today. The first question a stranger asks you wouldn’t be your name; rather it would be your caste.
In 2000, the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission declared domestic workers as a form of “Contemporary Slavery”. Regardless of that, as of statistics taken in 2008;
90 million is the estimated official number of domestic workers in India
12.6 million of them are children
86% of them are girls
And 25% of them were flouting the anti-child labour laws; they were below 14 years of age
Presuming a woman, illiterate, unable to qualify for any job merged with a status of lower caste like an albatross around her neck, has a family of five to take care of. She wouldn’t know that she was entitled to a minimum wage, or that she could bring her employer to court if harassed. She wouldn’t even know she had it within her to request to be treated better than a mongrel.
Where ignorance, illiteracy and caste inferiority play the main role in adult domestic worker abuse; the state of affairs of the child domestic workers is miserable.
We have in our fundamental rights the right to free and compulsory education until the age of 14 but every day at least three girl children are lured to the big cities under the illusion of working at a big mansion every day; what they actually encounter is 16-18 hours of hard toil, scarcity of food and invariable sexual harassment. They lose out on their education, their childhood, their innocence and their recreation. Most of them are psychologically affected by the time they grow up.
There was an incident that I haven’t felt like sharing for a long time until I sat down to pen this article. It was an year ago. I was at a family friend’s house chitchatting. Pounding on the door, a young girl barely 16 came running into the house from the gate. Her story was something I can never forget- She had come to the city to work at a house but had been locked for three years in a room by her employer and his wife and constantly physically and sexually harassed. She was covered with bruises and said she was three months plus pregnant. A little unnerved, Aunty asked her to wait while she called the police. By the time they arrived, she had disappeared. Conveniently, the couple too mysteriously vanished. (Click here to read a similar encounter)
Later we learnt that the entire street knew about the girl being held captive; they had heard her screams on countless nights. And not a soul raised a cry.
The apathy of our country and its people.
More than them, it’s the middle and upper class who should hang their heads in shame. Despite all the education we get, the mentality of taking advantage of the weak and ignorant has never left our blood. However states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka have taken giant steps forward and recognized domestic workers as a form of labour and introduced minimum wages.
The day our domestic workers will be safe is when they have Unions of their own to serve as their backbone and demonstrate to them that they are as respectable as anybody else no matter what they are or where they come from. We are all one after all.
The writer is the Tamil Nadu correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz
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