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In the name of servitude

KALPANA SHARMA

N. SRIDHARAN

Getting someone to do the "dirty" work ... an issue of attitudes and of how we value another life.

IN Mumbai, millions of women begin their working day at the crack of dawn. They have little time to dawdle over a cup of tea or a newspaper. Before the rest of the family wakes up, they have to prepare lunch dabbas, cook breakfast, get clothes out for their children and husband, try and do some cleaning and washing, and bathe and get ready themselves. After that they must run to catch a particular train or bus to go to work in an office or a factory, or just walk to a building where their "job" is to perform similar tasks in several households.

It is almost impossible to calculate how many people in India are employed to work as household help. According to a study, "Invisible Servitude: An in-depth study of domestic workers in the world", by an organisation called Social Alert, there are an estimated 20 million women, children and men in domestic work in India. Of these, 92 per cent are women, girls and children, 20 per cent are under 14 years of age and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. In Mumbai alone, this study (released in March 2000) estimated that there were six lakh domestic workers of whom 80,000 are full-time. This is likely to be an underestimate but it does give some idea of the extent to which this "industry" provides employment, particularly to rural migrants coming into the city.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a clear definition of a domestic worker: "someone who carries out household work in private households in return for wages". The ILO also estimates that worldwide, domestic work is the largest employment category for girls under the age of 16. Yet despite the extent of this form of labour, there are no international standards to regulate the conditions of work or the wages of domestic workers.

Maharashtra has recently initiated steps to do this in response to campaigns by non-governmental organisations over several years. Last month, the cabinet met and decided that domestic workers should be regulated. It suggested that a labour board, with an assistant labour official and representatives of domestic workers, employers, NGOs and the government be established to look into the rights of domestic workers.

Predictably, both employers and domestic workers are dismissing this tentative step as impractical. The latter fear that in a labour surplus market, any regulation will drive out those demanding their rights as others willing to work at any wage step in. And most employers do not want any regulation as the absence of it allows them to pay what they wish. They also expect that regulation will open up another avenue for corruption without changing anything for domestic workers. In any case, the fact that few think of the women and men working in their homes as "domestic workers" but instead still refer to them as "servants" tells its own story.

Yet, the Maharashtra Government's announcement did create some ripples. The media, for instance, woke up to the world of the domestics. And momentarily, those who employ these domestics, stopped and looked at them as if they were real people, with some rights and needs and aspirations.

But the moment has already passed. And the invisible army of maids, cleaners, cooks, drivers, gardeners, watchmen, continue to do their work, at salaries that bear little relation to the nature of their work, under conditions where the word "exploitation" would be considered grossly inadequate to describe what goes on.

But apart from the physical aspects of domestic work — the long hours, the absence of off-days, the low pay — what about the other messages that are passed down to another generation?

Barbara Ehrenreich, the American writer who has written a remarkable book called Nickel and Dimed based on her experience of working at the lowest-paid jobs in the U.S., and whose new book Global Women is about the unrecognised global trade in people, addressed this aspect when she spoke at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival. Just as rural migrants find jobs in our cities as domestic workers, in the West, migrant women from poor countries work as domestic workers in upper class, usually white, households. Ehrenreich believes that this "servant culture" in the West is destroying families in the developing world (as women have to leave their own families at home when they migrate to other countries to work as domestics) and inculcating racism in the West. "We women in rich countries work, so we need someone else to do the work at home and look after our children. Our children learn quickly in this servant economy that some people are more worthy than others. New hierarchies emerge. Because, increasingly, cleaning women are women of colour, so we imprint racism very early."

This is precisely what is happening here. Millions of Indian children in homes where such a "servant culture" prevails, grow up never picking up their clothes, never washing their clothes, never clearing the dining table, never washing up, never cooking, never sweeping or cleaning, never doing anything in the home except eating, perhaps reading and definitely watching television. What kind of culture are we promoting just because we have the luxury to be able to hire someone, most often at pitiful wages, to do all the "dirty" work? How many of us pause to consider this even as we justify the need to have "servants"?

This is a complex issue, tied up with questions of employment and surplus labour. But it is also a simple issue — one of attitudes, of how we value another human life. It is a question of recognising all human beings, regardless of the nature of their work, as precisely that. It is a question of ensuring that we don't bring up our children with values that perpetuate slavery and servitude.

E-mail the writer at
ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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