In June 2010, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Harish Rawat, declared the concerns of domestic workers to be of national priority. Later in the interview, he confirmed that the number of domestic workers in India could not be quantified because the term “domestic worker” lacked a legal definition.
According to present data estimates, the total number of domestic workers in India is approximately 4 million — however, these statistics are unreliable and conservative estimates at best. The Wire reported that media reports put the figure at around 90 million. This surprising chasm between the two data sets effectively places a giant question mark on the reliability of the aforementioned government numbers.
Domestic workers, most of whom are women, populate nearly every middle-class urban household and yet are invisibilised through lackadaisical policy and legal frameworks. However, it is the middle-class household where class antagonism manifests itself sharply. Not only are domestic workers paid minimum wages and denied dignity, but several of them are subjected to sexual assault, exploitation, humiliation and trafficking at the hands of their employers.
Since they are hired to do “dirty work” like cleaning toilets and washing dishes, they are deemed to be “unclean” and “filthy”. Such attitudes are informed by casteist motivations which are deep-seated in the urban middle class — for whom offering a glass of water or stale food to their “servant” counts as a lavish display of their progressive credentials.
It is common to see domestic workers leaving comfortable 3 BHK flats, where they work, with heaps of tattered clothes and discards which are handed over to them by their employers as charitable donations.
The upper caste politics of segregation continues to the toilet. Ironically, domestic workers are barred from using toilets they clean every day. In high rises, they are asked to use the common toilet, which is usually in the basement or the ground floor. On the other hand, many have to either learn to “hold it in” or resort to peeing in the parking lot.
The non-usage of the employer’s toilet is part of an unspoken yet non-negotiable contract. Fearing anger and humiliation, domestic workers remain silent and employers turn a blind eye. “Servants” who have to, unfortunately, train themselves to resist the urge to pee often develop urinary tract infection. Reports suggest that almost all maids complain of having suffered from urinary tract infection.
Meanwhile, the option of peeing in public toilets is no better because most public toilets are not maintained and are highly unsanitary, presenting the scope of developing a urinary tract infection. Open defecation, as well, involves significant safety and health risks.
Most domestic workers are forced to live in congested chawls and slums due to their meagre income. Individuals in residential settings like these are invariably dependent on government-funded community toilets — a majority of which are in a dismal state. This is a concern that Right to Pee activists continue to fight for in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
Right to Pee activist Supriya Sonar says that many community toilets across the city are not equipped with electricity or doors. Because they are unhygienic, the women who are then forced to defecate in the open end up being raped, robbed and harassed — ugly truths that never reach the police’s earshot.
Deprived of necessities even more fundamental than clothing, domestic workers’ lack of toilet access does not transform into public health concerns because the maid’s body is deemed less valuable than the employer’s.
The politics behind urinary tract infections and access to toilet and hygiene is so complicated that each layer reveals systemic inequities that have remained unresolved. The only way forward is to unmask casteist and feudal ways of living hidden under the guise of cosmopolitanism.