A domestic worker — a single mother in her twenties — narrated the following incident recently. She was reported ‘missing’ from the premises — one of Calcutta’s gated residencies — by one of her employers after she did not report for work. The police were summoned to find her and, eventually, they discovered the startled woman on the terrace. Among other things, the police asked her the following questions — what right did she have to skip work? Where was she hiding while her employers searched for her? Why was her mobile phone not working?
She told the police that since the door had gone unanswered several times, she had assumed that her employer was not at home. As she lived far away — she cycles for over three kilometres to reach her workplace — she decided to spend her free time on the terrace before her evening duties. Her mobile phone, she added, had not been recharged because she had not received her wages yet. The police left, satisfied there was nothing amiss.
But some things were amiss. Fearful of the police, the young woman had decided to conceal a few facts. For instance, a particular security guard in the housing complex often helped maids get employment. In return, he asked for a cut. In her case, she had been repeatedly subjected to sexually provocative banter. When she had informed an employer, a woman, she was told not to wait near the security booth in between her shifts. (Domestic workers are discouraged from using the lift or loitering inside the premises in this residency.)
Later, she was told that the police had been summoned for her safety. Given that realities vary among classes, there were some unforeseen consequences of such benevolence. Word had spread in the neighbourhood that the police had come looking for her. On returning home, she had to face questions not only from her family but also her landlord who warned that she would be evicted. Her friend, another domestic worker, told her that she would find it difficult to get work since the police interrogation was certain to compromise her integrity in the eyes of her employers.
It would be instructive to review the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in the light of this incident. Three months after the legislation received presidential assent, it was reported that the women and child development ministry remained clueless about the absence of grievance cells in IT firms and MNCs in Karnataka. The picture isn’t very different in the rest of India, especially in the unorganized sector, a fact that compelled the International Labour Organization to propose the setting up of committees comprising trade union representatives to fill this gap. Institutional apathy isn’t the only area of concern. Given the entrenched class bias, one needs to be circumspect about the pledge to institute Local Complaints Committees for women domestic workers. Tellingly, the WCD ministry decided to bring India’s 47.5 lakh registered domestic workers under the ambit of the law as an afterthought — this, in spite of the frequent incidents of employers torturing and murdering domestic helps.
But the young woman’s narrative corroborates the need for the law to reflect on its inclusive nature and on the idea of abuse. Subtler forms of harassment, which need not necessarily be sexual, also undermine a woman employee’s right to equality and dignity. Worse, in this case, the inquiry into how the domestic worker spent her free time reiterates feudal ideas concerning the ownership and surveillance of labour. The law has to remain alert to the possibility of protection giving way to control in the name of making work places secure for women.