The world over, people have taken to the streets and to social media, condemning the brutal treatment of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others whose lives have been cruelly cut short by acts of racism and police brutality in the United States.
Floyd’s dying words – “I can’t breathe’ as he lay struggling, his neck pinned on to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer, will continue to haunt us for a long time. And, while we need to speak out against the cruelty that Floyd, Taylor, and many others like them have faced in a country which prides itself of multiculturism, we also need to acknowledge the racism, classism and casteism which is so inherent in our own societies.
In India, there have been numerous horrifying incidents of police apathy and violence against protesters, migrants and others. We may not accept that we are racists, but ask people from the northeastern states of India, the Africans who live in our country or those who stand out because of the way they look or the colour of their skins, and you would know what they go through every day.
Perhaps, among the most silent sufferers of this prejudice are those who support us in our daily lives, and without whom many of us have seen things turn topsy-turvy this lockdown – the domestic workers.
The silent sufferers
A recent highly disturbing ad from Kent Ro is a classic example of this classism. The copy reads, “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Her hands may be infected.” It goes on to suggest that people use Kent’s atta and bread maker for hands-free kneading. The ad was called out for its insensitive wording, after which Kent released a rather halfhearted apology, with chairman Mahesh Gupta stating that the mistake was unintentional but wrongly communicated and has been withdrawn.
That such a distasteful ad was approved by Kent shows the lack of sensitivity the company, and many of us, have to the ills that are happening in our backyards. Through its copy, the domestic worker has been dehumanised into being just a carrier of the virus. The ad has conveniently ignored the fact that they would be at an even greater risk of contracting the virus from an employer’s house. As a domestic worker told journalist Burkha Dutt, “The rich brought the virus on a plane, and the people out on the street, on a cycle, are the poor. Then they blame the slums.”
As per government estimates, there are 40,00,000 domestic workers across the country, of which around 65 per cent are female. Data reveals a 120 per cent increase in domestic workers in the decade post-liberalisation, as more women joined the workforce and growth in income. Since this sector is largely informal and unorganised, there are currently no specific laws or rights governing them.
Hence, domestic workers are often subject to physical and verbal abuse, threats and are exploited by their ruthless employers. As per a survey conducted by the Martha Farrel Foundation on sexual harassment faced by domestic workers in South Delhi, an overwhelming 92 per cent of the respondents responded that they knew of cases of sexual abuse around them, while 29 per cent reported of suffering sexual harassment while at work.
This pandemic has been especially difficult for them. Since the lockdown was announced two months ago, most households have asked their domestic help to stay at home, while some have asked them to leave without paying them. In some cases, domestic workers have also been compelled to continue working, despite being at risk of contracting the virus, and are often threatened if they do not comply.
Many Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) have listed restrictions and procedures that domestic workers need to follow to be allowed to return work. Among these are rather insensitive ones such as not allowing them to use lifts or touch lift buttons.
When I spoke to Savita, the lady who works at my place, I was shocked to find out that she had not been paid her salary by her other employers for even the month of March, let alone April and May. Since she did not have a local ration card, she was not entitled to any benefits, and hence had to pay double the rate for essentials. Her case is better, she said. Many in her area had lost their jobs and were not paid.
And this prejudice precedes the pandemic. I know of households where domestic workers are given food and water in separate utensils, which are not mixed with the rest of the household. Never mind that it is the domestic worker who washes all the utensils in the first place, or even cooks the food. There are even some families who refuse to give water to their domestic help or require them to sit on the floor, separately.
Caste and religion are major points of discrimination. Many societies and individual houses refuse to allow Muslim domestic helpers into their homes, or only allow those who belong to the upper castes to cook for them.
Despite the issues that domestic workers around the country face, they are rarely spoken about nor do they figure much in any policy. In 2011, the Ministry of Labour and Employment had released the first draft of the National Policy for Domestic workers. However, nothing worked out then. In June 2019, the Government drafted another draft policy to look into the working conditions of domestic workers and to ensure minimum wages, safe working conditions and social security. There has not been any further word on this as well.
The pandemic has widened the bridge between the haves and have nots - the plight of the migrants have been highlighted, and, hence, it is equally important for the Government to step in and ensure that it formulates a legal framework that will put a stop to the endless exploitation that domestic workers around the country suffer. It is also time we reflect on the prejudice that our society suffers from and give our domestic workers the respect they deserve.