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For Women Domestic Workers, Sexual Harassment Is Not Class Specific

Trigger warning: Mention of sexual harassment, abuse

Rekha* works for over 8 hours each day, for six days every week. Her meagre salary falls short of sustaining her two children and her dependent parents in Chikkaballapur. She receives no support financially or otherwise from her husband. 

Unfortunately, the story Rekha tells me is the story of many other domestic workers. 

Post-liberalization, India witnessed a 120% increase in the number of domestic workers in the country. At present, 118 million women workers are employed in the unorganized sector, accounting for 97% of the total women’s workforce.

graph displaying the rise in numbers of domestic workers from 1999-2000 to 2009-2010
Photo credit: International Domestic Workers Federation

92.1% of women workers engaged in the informal sector belong to Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes or religious minorities.

Domestic Workers In Bangalore 

Large apartment and villa complexes are a staple in the skyline of a metropolitan city like Bangalore. These housing complexes employ domestic women workers, who are generally migrants from rural areas from within Karnataka or from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. 

However, they experience disrespect, discrimination and degradation in their workplace – the employer’s home – from female employers, men of the house, and male co-workers. 

Brinda*, a worker in my residential complex, was reduced to tears because of the verbal harassment she had endured – the ‘teasing’ of these men. 

I was cleaning the basement, and all these drivers kept making fun of me. They weren’t letting me do my work,” Brinda added, “Many residents came down to go out and saw them talking about me, but they just got into their cars and left.” 

She told her female employers, who were residents of the apartment, of the incident.

The committee, at the urging of the women residents, put into place measures to protect Brinda and other domestic workers. But, if Brinda had never brought it up, would these very visible incidents of harassment have been brushed under the rug by these elite individuals?

Domestic workers also face harassment within individual households. Lekha* has been verbally harassed by her ‘madam’ for taking 3 days off to return to her hometown and grieve the death of a family member. 

I don’t understand why madam didn’t let me go home for the funeral. Madam told me I’m not allowed to take days off, even in emergencies. She cut my salary and forced me to clean bathrooms and fans which was not our initial agreement,” Lekha told me, “I got no extra pay for the extra work.” 

Lekha comes from a rural village in Karnataka. Her husband left her when they moved to the city to live with another woman. She has two dependent sons; to provide for them, she works over ten hours every day.

She mentioned incidents of physical abuse that other domestic help had faced. “My friend (a domestic worker) was slapped by her madam when she asked for a few days off to take care of her sick mother.” 

graph highlights increasing trend in reported cases of violence against domestic workers between 2010-2012.
Photo credit : The Wire

Our madams don’t pay us sometimes. When we ask, we are scolded and told that we don’t deserve the money. One friend (a domestic worker) was beaten up by a sir (male member of the household) when she asked for her salary in full. She hadn’t been paid for three months and she really needed the money.” Lekha added.

Domestic workers are also sexually harassed and abused in their workplace by male co-workers or men of the household.

When they are abused by men of the household, domestic workers feel helpless since they are likely to lose their job if they choose to voice it out to their ‘madams’. They are forced to continue working in an unsafe environment until they can find other employment. 

Laasya* said, “Every time I was at home with just sir, he would touch me inappropriately. It felt wrong but I never told madam about it. She would have kicked me out of the house to live on the streets. That would be worse.

As highlighted by the Human Rights Watch 2020 report, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 that was passed to protect all women workers, including domestic workers, has been very poorly enforced. 

The financial contribution of domestic workers to the family doesn’t come with financial independence. Often, their hard-earned money is taken away by male members of their family – fathers, husbands or brothers who then decide how it will be spent. 

My husband wastes all my money, and I struggle to get food for my children. If I leave my husband and my father finds out, he will take me back to our hometown. There I won’t have any control over my children, he will decide everything. I don’t want that, so I stay,” Jeevika* told me.

Disrespect, Discrimination And Deep-Rooted Casteism 

Domestic workers belong to an extremely vulnerable section of the population and the law is limited.

There is no guarantee of benefits like minimum wage, maternity leave, safe work environment, stability or security since domestic workers can be hired and fired at the employer’s whim. They receive no raise in their salary over multiple years, despite the inflation in prices observed. 

Rekha said, “I have worked at many houses for 4 years. I have only got an increase in salary of Rs. 200 over these years, and only after I asked for it.” She added, “Madams prefer giving us clothing and vegetables instead of money. But I don’t want that, money is more useful.

Karnataka was one of the few states in the country which has set minimum wages for domestic workers prior to the new law. As of 2019, the minimum wage is Rs. 13,000 per month. However, there is a severe lack of protection of the rights of domestic workers and this wage is seen to be only a theoretical minimum.  

a woman using the stove to cook
Representational image.

The disrespect and inhuman treatment domestic workers receive at the hands of their employers stem from casteism and classism, where members of lower socio-economic class and caste are not ‘deserving’ of their respect.

This discriminatory mindset dominates employers – they see themselves as ‘saviours’ who are performing a great service. 

We get no respect from our madams. They want us to work every day without a break, but they can take vacations,” Rekha* told me. 

It allows them to physically and sexually abuse domestic workers, permits them to provide unsafe working environments and treat workers with disrespect. This lack of empathy is a direct result of the social hierarchy that determines what people are ‘entitled’ to. 

Lekha, Brinda and others spoke about how they wanted more respect from their employers and expressed disgust at the appalling behaviour they had faced. 

Aren’t we human too?!” Rekha exclaimed in her native tongue Kannada. 

Protecting the rights of domestic workers should be a priority especially considering India, in 2019, voted in favour of the International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment Convention. It is a treaty that establishes global standards to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the workplace. 

*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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