The ordeal suffered by a modern, urban woman when her maid quits the job is nerve-wracking. And if this woman happens to be a professional with a family to look after — which means being on time with her husband’s breakfast, getting her two children ready for school, operating the washing machine and cooking lunch at the same time while getting ready for work herself, all within an hour-and-a-half — the tragedy of losing the maid assumes epic proportions. Behind every successful woman there is always another woman, indispensable in daily life but quite invisible. Without these ‘other’ women, the engine of a household would grind to a halt. Yet, the value accorded to domestic workers and their labour is extremely low in Indian society — this includes the educated, the erudite and the intellectual, who take pride in being all for human rights and the empowerment of the underprivileged.
So far, the government and polite society have conveniently ignored the fact that domestic workers are professionals too, and they deserve workers’ rights. Only recently has the Centre woken up to the domestic labourers’ plight, nudged repeatedly by non-governmental organizations and activists, and has introduced a draft policy that attempts to provide domestic workers with basic rights such as a weekly day off, minimum wages, fixed working hours and employment contracts.
While the Centre basks in the glory of its achievement, perhaps it should also reflect a bit on what is still left to be done. At present, it does not have a clear idea about the number of domestic workers and the conditions they work in. The draft policy recommends a safe working environment, but to make that happen one must first find out what the current environment is like. An NGO working for the welfare of domestic workers says that 70 per cent of the workers are women, and many of them children, who are often victims of trafficking. The draft policy intends to give these women their basic rights as workers, but what about their rights as women and as human beings? Even as professionals, the law against sexual harassment at the workplace should protect them.
Sexual abuse of domestic workers is keenly discussed and debated, but it is an area that still remains in considerable darkness. All we have are speculations, but no consolidated effort on the part of the government to find out the exact facts and figures. The little research that has been conducted independently on this subject suggests that domestic workers are among the most vulnerable sections of the country’s workforce. The ‘civilized’ elite often exploits them not just monetarily but also sexually. The incidents are generally hushed up. In most cases, not even a formal complaint is lodged, and so, the question of justice or punishment does not arise.
Tantalizing accounts of sexual exploitation of ‘maid servants’ have so far made up the material of short stories, sometimes novels, sometimes television soaps, and, mostly, erotic jokes and pornographic narratives. Once in a while, cases such as the Shiney Ahuja debacle give us a peek into this dark corridor of muffled cries. But in general it is all hearsay, nothing that is taken beyond a coffee-table conversation.
According to a member of the task force that is helping the government set up policies for domestic workers, there have been thousands of cases of physical and sexual abuse against women who work in households for pay. The government has failed to do anything about it as there is “no mechanism to track and monitor”.
Before one sighs and dismisses the inaction of the government as another example of its usual callous and complaisant nature, it may be worthwhile to wonder if there are other reasons behind its reluctance to go deeper into this issue. In 2007, a law had been proposed to protect women from sexual harassment at the workplace, and it had included domestic labourers. In May this year, there has been a last-minute change to this proposed legislation which is soon to be placed before the cabinet. The women and child development ministry has withdrawn protection from sexual harassment to domestic workers from the ambit of this long-pending proposal, citing a really curious reason — reportedly, the law ministry has argued that implementing the law “inside people’s homes” may prove too hard. It would have been truly enlightening if the law ministry had cared to explain what the difficulty exactly is. Does it mean to say that sexual crimes are not committed inside people’s homes? Or is it suggesting that sexual abuse which takes place inside people’s homes should not come under the scope of the law?
To neglect or forget is one thing, but to consciously deny is quite something else. And when the logic behind the denial borders on absurdity, it is time to wonder what the unsaid realities are. The home, the sacred seat of the institution called family, must always remain unscathed, immune to any accusation. Even when questioning its integrity becomes absolutely unavoidable, such questioning must be for a reason far more weighty than just the abuse of those ‘menial’ women who sweep the floor. Men will be men, once in a while they will ogle at the maid; some naughty teenage boy will grab the maid’s breasts when he wants to taste a female body without too much fuss. These women need the jobs, they will not open their mouths too easily. After all, they are ‘lowly’ beings, coming mostly from the backward sections of society. They will find it hard to accuse, harder to prove, and even harder to get another job. And, above all, the home (I repeat) is sacred. What happens there, stays there.
Honour is a funny word. It is amazing how its meaning changes with the identities of individuals or groups, both in the eyes of society and the law. The honour of the Indian family often lies in covering up the exploitations perpetrated by it. The difficulty of implementing sexual harassment laws inside a home has its roots in an age-old mindset that strives to protect the image of ‘the home’ more than its inhabitants. What this mindset disregards, deliberately, is the fact that this ‘home’ is the workplace for a domestic worker. She is vulnerable there, as a female employee is vulnerable to sexual advances from employers or male colleagues. While the law protects the employees in an office, the domestic worker is protected neither by the law nor by society. Her vulnerability is intensified by the fact that she is poor; she may not be able to afford to protest and lose her job.
If it is to be believed that our country is indeed democratic, there is no reason why the law should hesitate to enter people’s households. Then again, it is selective in its hesitation. It does not show any reluctance to invade households when it comes to domestic violence or dowry deaths. But while dealing with the abuse of ‘maids’, it stops and reconsiders whether it is worth wasting its time on those expendable creatures.