A peculiar invisibility masks an estimated 50 million people in India, and many outside it. The twists and turns of the incident concerning the Indian diplomat abroad are, however obliquely, a reminder of that fact. An overwhelming majority of this population consists of women, all engaged in paid domestic work. ‘Unskilled’ labour for money in other people’s houses could have only begun with the desperation of poverty. For these women, the burden of invisibility is multiplied many times over — by their gender, by the fact that they do what is termed ‘housework’, the fact that they are poor and uneducated and, most important, that in housework they do what their employers would not or cannot do, that is, cleaning and washing, taking out the litter and looking after the baby, cooking everyday meals and generally providing the wheels on which thousands of households run smoothly throughout India. The invisibility is, of course, a necessary requirement for exploitation. In spite of the middle and upper classes’ dependence on women domestic workers, they remain part of the vast and dim mass of India’s unorganized sector and, in most places, can be paid anything the employer wishes and be treated in any way that the employer wants. It is not easy to believe that this huge segment of the population has been accidentally overlooked by policymakers. It is even less easy to accept that employers innocently forget that the women who are most closely connected with the intimate everyday activities of a household in bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, those who deal with the debris of everyday living, are ‘human’, if only with the most basic needs and rights, including in many cases the need to use a bathroom, the need to eat adequately, or the need to rest when ill or pregnant.
In spite of recent efforts by activists of various groups and non-governmental organizations all over the country, women domestic workers have been able to assert certain rights of wages, working hours and leave in very limited areas. Much campaigning produced the Domestic Workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Act, 2008, amended in 2010, but that still remains on paper. And although the laws against sexual harassment in the workplace and against child labour are in force, their effects in the sphere of paid domestic work remain shrouded in evasion, equivocation and downright lies.
It is a disgraceful situation. Yet in many ways it is typical of a country that aspires to be a great power while ignoring the rights and needs of its underprivileged, be they marginal groups, unskilled labourers or, on another plane, women and children. This attitude of exclusivity, of which casteism is a metaphor, marks the deep-set values of the dominant classes in Indian society, and makes them aggressively blind to the human beings who help run their homes. Laws will remain ineffectual till that changes.