Maids ask for dignity


Just a couple of days ago I heard from my daughter that several members of her friend’s family have tested positive for coronavirus. The old grandmother and young grandson are two exceptions. Immediately, extended family and friends began ‘blaming’ the two lived-in maids as source of infection. The lived-in maids have not gone out of the house since March 22. But the lady of the house is going regularly to school for past two months as it is compulsory for principals of Delhi government schools to do so. It is ‘convenient’ to blame poor maids!

During the past six months, as stories from lockdown began to spread gradually, the plight of these maids working in middle-class homes became known occasionally. In May, a study of 145 maids in Gurugram conducted by Martha Farrell Foundation showed that 92% of them had not received their full wages for months of March, and none whatsoever after that. In a recent study by SEWA Bharat from Gujarat & Madhya Pradesh showed that 82% of 150 maids surveyed had not received wages during lockdown. Further, one-third of maids were not given the job again after unlock began in those cities.

In most middle-lass homes around the country, domestic workers perform a wide variety of work…..cleaning, washing, cooking, care for children, elderly and sick, for example. Two types of domestic workers are common…..part-timers, who come for some particular tasks once or twice a day. And, lived-in, who stay in the home of the family they work for, some times in a separate space (called ‘servants quarter’), many a times under the same roof. In many households, these domestic workers serve for long periods of time, getting used to the family’s culture and rituals.

There is no nation-wide data on domestic workers and maids. It is estimated that women account for about 70% of nearly 40 million domestic workers in the country. Called by different names, nearly 3 crore maids are domestic workers in the country, providing livelihood to their families, about 10% of India’s population. Yet, India’s labour laws do not recognise domestic workers as workers. Maids are not designated as workers under any legal statute in the country. Even the recently enacted labour codes do not codify maids (domestic workers) as workers. Government of India has not yet ratified Conventions 189 and 190 of International Labour Organisation (ILO) which protect the rights of domestic workers. As a result, maids are not entitled to any social security benefits available to other informal workers like construction and sanitary workers.

Hence, they have no legal rights. There is no legal standard for either hours of work, or weekly holiday or paid leave or wage rates. Thus, there is no legal protection available to them either. Their contract with employers is informal, through word-of-mouth, and can not be legally enforced. So, when millions of maids did not get full wages during lockdown, nothing could be done legally.

The employers of these maids in our households are middle-class families, those of us likely to read this article.

We tend to forget that our homes are workplaces for domestic workers; how we behave with them, how we dress and speak in front of them affects their work environment. This is especially so when maids come to work in our homes, or live in our homes for doing such domestic work. Complaints of bullying, abuse, sexual harassment are frequently shared by maids in their own networks, and with those social workers who support their families. Only an occasional incident gets to public domain. There is no grievance redressal mechanism for maids so where should they take their complaints?

 Imagine any one of us behaving in a similar manner when we go to our own offices and workplaces? Imagine if our own employers behaved with us in that manner? We expect that our employers will treat us with respect and decency. Maids also expect that their dignity of labour be respected and valued.

A group of domestic workers asked the government last week why they were excluded from the newly legislated labour codes? They have drafted their own code of conduct which they intend to share with their employers soon. It has such items:

  • We expect that our employers will treat us well, with dignity and not like “Corona carriers”. 
  •  We expect them to provide us with the same professional and safe environment that they would expect from their workplace. 

Would we as employers find it terribly difficult to adhere to these minimalist standards that our maids expect from us?

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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