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Overworked, Underpaid, Abused: Inside The World Of India’s Domestic Workers

Alison Saldanha,
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In the decade after liberalisation, there was a nearly 120% rise in the number of domestic workers in India from 7.4 lakh in 1991 to 16.2 lakh workers by 2001, says author Tripti Lahiri quoting census data in her recently released book, Maid In India. Women constitute over two-thirds of the workforce in this unorganised sector, which also includes chauffeurs and security guards, according to Lahiri’s analysis.

 

Female domestic workers usually come from India’s least-developed regions, such as Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Assam. Their journeys are cross-country and transnational, as they seek work as servants in affluent homes. They are, often barely of legal working age, their wages less than the minimum fixed by the government. Their employers range from India’s elite to its nouveau riche, many of who still believe in the traditional divide between servants and masters. Abuse, mental, physical or sexual, of these women is not uncommon. One such dispute between a family and their Muslim domestic worker led to a riot-like situation in a gated community in Noida on Wednesday, July 12.

 

This is the world of Maid in India.

 

Through anecdotal evidence, Lahiri charts the sector’s trajectory and details the business of brokers and agents and exposes the workers’ limited access to justice and formalization. She also draws from her own personal experiences of engaging domestic help.

 

“We eat first, they later; we sit on chairs and they on the floor; we call them by their names and they address us by titles,” she writes.

 

Currently based in Hong Kong, Lahiri is the Asia bureau chief of Quartz, a digital media news organisation. She has worked for the Wall Street Journal in Delhi and was the founding editor of the Journal’s India Real Time blog. In 2012, she won the Ramnath Goenka award for civic journalism. She has written about industrial disasters in Bangladesh and India’s struggle to combat violence against women. She has a masters in journalism and Latin American studies from New York University, is fluent in Spanish and says her Italian is rusty. This is her first book.

 

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Tripti Lahiri, author of Maid In India.

 

In an interview with IndiaSpend, Lahiri discusses the lives and times of India’s maids.

 

Q: “India has always had servants in some form or the other,” you write. What have been the trends over the last century in the sector?

 

There have been huge declines and then upswings in the number of domestic workers in India over the last 100 years. In 1931, the Census classified 2.7 million people as “servants.” By 1971, the Census found just around 67,000 people doing that work. A lot of that had to do with changes like the departure of a large class of people able to hire help—British colonial administrators, for example—and the fact that in the first decades after independence people weren’t so well-off and almost all women who stayed home did their own work.

 

But suddenly, between 1991 and 2001 there was a 120% increase in the numbers of domestic help.* It’s true that India has seen a stagnation, even a shrinking, in female labor participation rates long-term. But because of the immense growth of the population, even with that apparent stagnancy, the absolute numbers of women working outside the home have gone up.

 

The Census shows the numbers of female workers aged 15-59 went up 17% between 2001 and 2011. In cities, it went up over 70% from around 14.7 million in 2001 to 25 million in 2011. That trend is driving a demand for help. Again, more people are prosperous, so even when women in affluent households stay home, those homes can still afford—and want to—hire help.

 

Q: Indian women do about 15 times more housework than Indian men, as per the 2014 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report you have quoted. Indian women do about 35 hours of housekeeping chores a week while Indian men do two — the worst country ratio. What does this tell you about the country’s domestic-service sector?

 

For me, those numbers really highlighted the difference between women and men in India, and the amount of time that women spend waiting upon men. In the period in the 2000s when official statistics noted the numbers of women in the workforce fell, other official studies found that women were doing more unpaid housework. That means if you move out of the paid workforce, you take on more unpaid work at home, which is just considered a part of normal familial duties. Whether you are a professional domestic worker, a housewife, or a white-collar professional, chances are that you are doing a whole lot more cleaning, cooking and childcare than your equivalent Indian man.

 

One thing that I didn’t end up including in the book is how the normalcy of women and girls doing a lot of housework at home can shape court decisions. Sometimes there are complaints registered with police that a family is keeping a child worker, and in those cases there might actually be a family relationship, admittedly a distant one. In two rulings I looked at, the amount of housework those girls were doing was not the decisive factor in courts deciding whether they were maids or family members, because, as one court noted, it’s common for young women to do a lot of housework for family members. Instead it was the lack of school enrollment that led to a court ruling in one case that a young girl was a maid, and not a family member.

 

In the other case, where school attendance records showed the girl was actually going to school regularly, the court ruled that she was being treated as a bonafide family member although she also did a lot of housework. But the idea that a woman should serve her family in this way is being questioned in some legal cases, for example in divorce petitions. In several of these that I looked at, the women seeking a divorce say that their in-laws fired the domestic help and gave all the work to them after their marriage, citing this as evidence that they were not treated as true family members.

 

Q: More people are educated today than in the 1980s. In 1981 the literacy rate was 43.5% — as of 2011 it was 74.04%. The trend is particularly pronounced for women as the number of female literates has jumped from 29.76% in 1981 to 65.46% in 2011. Despite this, why is the domestic service sector growing at an accelerated pace?

 

I think this has to do with the same trends that I mentioned earlier, relating to greater urban affluence and more women working in cities. There are also more young women enrolled in school than ever before. If they go on to college and work in the future, they are also likely to want to hire domestic help.

 

Q: Startups and other organisations, such as Babajobs, The Maids Company and Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), attempt to bring these informal workers into the formal space, but your book tells us the formalisation process has not been as successful as it might have been. What are the obstacles to formalizing domestic labour?

 

I should note that I didn’t speak with Babajobs or SEWA for the book. But from The Maids Company interviews and other workers I spoke to, I’d say there are two big obstacles. What people think they should pay is really set by what people around them are paying–basically by the microeconomy they live in. So it can be really hard to convince people to pay more and if they agree to pay a lot more than their peers, they might end up expecting a lot more in return and being less flexible with their workers. Conversely, even though workers might be open to banding together and demanding that wages be a certain level, they can’t control an influx of migrants willing to undercut them and work for less. But if there were more states with a law specifying a minimum wage for these workers, it would help, except for workers who are already earning a lot higher that those rates.

 

Q: In your research how often did you find maids approaching the courts for justice against abuse? What are the challenges they face?

 

I didn’t research FIRs and looked mainly at judgements in certain kinds of cases, so I don’t have a good sense of the big picture. Anecdotally I’d say that it’s certainly not a first-resort option for women who aren’t able to collect pay or who are facing other problems. I’d also say there’s a real feeling that the employers are “big people,” and it’s going to be difficult to get police to take their complaints seriously. Most often women want to leave a bad situation, rather than file a complaint.

 

Q: What did your research tell you about the social mobility of this class of labourers?

 

There definitely is mobility but it can take more than one generation to happen. So the child of a young woman who comes to the city as a “24-hour” worker is probably not going to jump into the white-collared classes. But the child of a woman who has been working in Delhi for decades might well be able to. I met a woman in her 50s who started out as a cleaner in her teens and was a housekeeper in central Delhi when we met; her son worked at a top think-tank and to my mind, is part of the Indian elite. I also think the child of someone like Santosh Srivastava whom I interviewed, a child domestic worker who became a cook and then became a placement agent, is going to go to college. I don’t know if she’ll become a white-collar professional but she has a good shot.

 

Q: In September 2014, the Delhi government’s labour department issued executive directions for the regulation of private placement agencies providing domestic labour in the National Capital Region (NCR). How effective has this been in curbing exploitation?

 

These rules didn’t become law, and I don’t think they are really being applied yet.

 

Q: Why did you focus your research on the Delhi-NCR region?

 

India is a really varied country and people’s relations with the help are pretty different, west to east, north to south. But Delhi/NCR is the capital, where its wealthiest and most powerful reside, which is why it seemed to me that looking at how well Delhi handles this relationship was really important, and maybe was a proxy for how India as a whole handles inequality and class. It’s also a city that I know well, and where I was living when I was working on the book, so I could spend more time with workers whose jobs were in Delhi.

 

Q: Which regions of India serve as the main sources of domestic labour and why?

 

The reasons that some states are “maid-sending” regions and others are not is down to the weakness of the economies of those areas. In the same way that there are multitudes of micro-economies in the capital, the country is a collection of pretty different economies—compare the minimum wages of Maharashtra and Jharkhand. It wouldn’t be unfair to compare the wealth of Delhi and its pull on the people of Jharkhand or other eastern states to the dynamic between the United States and Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s. For the same reason, you might hear people say that there are no Punjabi maids because the state is too rich. That’s not entirely true. But because the state is wealthier, their domestic workers are of a more advanced level: they have the knowledge and the connections to find work in Singapore, rather than Delhi. But that’s a topic for another book.

 

* Domestic work has increased 222% since 1999-2000 according to this 2011 report of The Task Force On Domestic Workers. The statistics on domestic workers vary from 4.75 million (employment and unemployment National Sample Survey 61st round, 2004-05) to 6.4 million (Census 2001).

 

(Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.)

 

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.

 
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  1. Shashank Reply

    July 16, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Good to see you added the word Muslim to the matter of interest. People would have missed the communal aspect of the case had you not mentioned it here.

    What is the ratio of domestic maid abuse versus petty thefts by domestic helps, many of which are not reported and settled by mere termination of her service?

    While abuse is wrong, so is theft. Citing one against the other is absurd.

    Highlighting the Noida incident as a core point to talk about the plight of abused maids is injustice to the family that was robbed.

    • Prem Reply

      August 1, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      You seem fixated on the word “Muslim”. I guess it must bring up some pretty strong emotions in you and it may have something to do with your biases.

      I read the entire article without thinking of this as a Hindu vs Muslim issue because the truth is no matter the religion, the maids and house servants (either gender) are constantly being given a really raw deal in India.

      As for the Noida incident, the painting of a group of people as “Bangladeshis” (while they were actually Bengali Muslims) and the call for a complete boycott which all residents must comply with speaks more about the prejudice about the people in the complex.

      Also, there is no proof of anything being stolen and even if there was one, it does not in any way excuse wrongful confinement and attacks on the maid.

  2. Vinay Tandon Reply

    July 17, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Would being literate-cum-unemployable for the formal sector also be a reason for the huge increase in Maids in India and Maids of India abroad?

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