Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

Of Inhuman Bondage
By Rasana Atreya

As edited and published by the Womens Feature Service

The Indian economy is booming and the middle class is reaping the benefits. But one section that seems to be excluded is that of the ubiquitous domestic maids. Though they play a key role in propping up the hectic work schedule and prosperous lifestyle of the middle class, they continue to lead the lives of bonded laborers. They do not enjoy any of the benefits of the labor laws in the country.

“I have not taken a single day off in the last five years. My madam told me that if I ever do so, she will make sure that I will never work again”, says Archana ruefully. Working seven days a week, she has never taken a day off even in extreme need, for fear that her employer will make good her threat. For Archana, unemployment could mean starvation for herself, her two young daughters and paralyzed husband.

Though a maid, Archana is far from illiterate. She has a Diploma in Electronics from an Industrial Training Institute (ITI). She could not find a job in her field of training because it remains an all-male domain. The employers did not budge despite her offer to work for a lower wage. As for the government agencies that employ people with her skills, the “going rate” (read bribe demanded) is Rs. 75,000 for a job that might pay Rs 4,000 per month at best.

Archana’s mother is a maid in a village near Sholapur. And she educated her daughter against all odds. “My mother wanted for me to have a better life than her own. She would die of grief if she came to know I’m working as a maid”, says Archana.

When Archana asked one of her employers – she works part-time in five homes – if he would give her a raise, she was fired. And the employer did not bother to pay wages due to her.

Unlike in the United States, where the Department of Labor can step in with mediation services to help people resolve their employment disputes, there is no similar facility offered by the government in India.

If there are laws in India similar to the American Fair Labor Standards Act, the maids have no way of knowing. The Act requires that employees receive at least the minimum wage, and not be employed for more than 40 hours in a week without receiving at least one and one-half times their regular pay for overtime.

For Chhaya, and her mother before her, domestic work is what women do. She says of her life, “My husband demands money for alcohol and prostitutes.” She adds matter-of-factly that he beats her up if she does not bring in the money. She does not believe that laws against wife battering apply to “women like her” because, she says, even the police do not seem to think it is a big deal.

The fact that domestic maids are working eight hours or more a day, 365 days a year with no vacations or proper compensation, seems to have escaped the radar of the National Commission for Women. Surprisingly, neither the National Human Rights Commission nor even Amnesty International, deem this as an instance of rights violation.

Anjali, 16, was pulled out of school by her alcoholic father and put to work as a domestic maid. This motherless girl, who is very good with languages and electronics, was so desperate to study that she moved out of her father’s home to her cousin’s, hoping he would be more supportive. It turned out to be that the cousin, an auto driver, was no better. He made Anjali do all work in his own home and take care of his children. He also kept whatever she earned.

Anjali’s employer is willing to fund her education in a hostel because she sees the girl’s potential. But the cousin is not impressed. He says that whatever she needs in life, she can get from marriage, and that she should not dream above her station in life. Anjali says in frustration, “I just want to go to college. I want to educate my sister too. Why can’t they see that I am not doing anything wrong in wanting a better life?”

A March 2000 report by the Pune-based NGO, Social Alert, puts the number of domestic workers in India at 20 million. Ninety-two per cent of them are women, girls and children, 20 per cent under 14 years of age, and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. According to this study, Mumbai alone has 600,000 domestic workers.

PVL Ramana, Hyderabad-based sociologist and author of ‘Women in Slums‘, says that the difference between domestic workers and upper class women is that for the upper class women, work is a privilege – they can choose to work or not. Female domestic workers have no choice but to work. It is a question of survival for them.

Ramana says that his research showed that in the slums, a husband often abandons his family after one or two children. Sheer economic necessity forces the abandoned mother to seek any job that can feed her children – and more often than not, owing to lack of education, it is a job as a domestic maid.

Secretary of Pune’s Maharshi Karve Stree-Shikshan Samstha (MKSS) Ravindra Deshpande says that there are several organizations like his own that cater to destitute girls/women. When asked why women like Archana were not able to use their education to pull themselves out of the poverty trap, he said there was a need for more institutions that worked for the betterment of women.

Whether that is the only prescription out of the poverty trap is debatable. But till these women become more visible, upward mobility for these urban “bonded laborers” will continue to remain a mere dream.

February 17, 2007


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