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Overworked, underpaid, abused: The world of India’s domestic workers



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New Delhi, July 17: In the decade after liberalisation, there was a nearly 120 per cent rise in the number of domestic workers in India, says author Tripti Lahiri in her recently released book, “Maid In India”. Women constitute over two-thirds of the workforce in this unorganised sector.

They usually come from backward regions such as Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam, are often barely of legal working age, their wages less than the minimum fixed by the government. Their employers range from Indias elite to its nouveau riche, many of who still believe in the traditional divide between servants and masters. Abuse, mental, physical or sexual, of these women is not uncommon. One such dispute between a family and their Muslim domestic worker led to a riot-like situation in a gated community in Noida on July 12.

Through anecdotal evidence, Lahiri — Asia Bureau Chief of Quartz, a digital media news organisation — charts the sector’s trajectory and details the business of brokers and agents and exposes the workers’ limited access to justice and formalisation. She also draws from her own personal experiences of engaging domestic help. Excerpts from an interview:

Q: “India has always had servants in some form or the other,” you write. What have been the trends over the last century in the sector?

A: In 1931, the Census classified 2.7 million people as “servants”. By 1971, the Census found just around 67,000 people doing that work. A lot of that had to do with changes like the departure of a large class of people able to hire help — British colonial administrators, for example — and the fact that in the first decades after independence people weren’t so well-off and almost all women who stayed home did their own work.

But suddenly, between 1991 and 2001 there was a 120 per cent increase in the numbers of domestic help. It’s true that India has seen stagnation, even a shrinking, in female labour participation rates long-term. But because of the immense growth of the population, the absolute numbers of women working outside the home have gone up.

The Census shows the numbers of female workers aged 15-59 went up 17 per cent between 2001 and 2011. In cities, it went up over 70 per cent from around 14.7 million in 2001 to 25 million in 2011. That trend is driving a demand for help. Again, more people are prosperous, so even when women in affluent households stay home, those homes can still afford — and want to — hire help.

Q: Indian women do about 35 hours of housekeeping chores a week while Indian men do two — the worst country ratio. What does this tell you about the country’s domestic-service sector?

A: For me, those numbers really highlighted the difference between women and men in India, and the amount of time that women spend waiting upon men. In the period in the 2000s when official statistics noted the numbers of women in the workforce fell, other official studies found that women were doing more unpaid housework. That means if you move out of the paid workforce, you take on more unpaid work at home, which is just considered a part of normal familial duties. Whether you are a professional domestic worker, a housewife, or a white-collar professional, chances are that you are doing a whole lot more cleaning, cooking and childcare than your equivalent Indian man.

Q: More people are educated today than in the 1980s. In 1981 the literacy rate was 43.5 per cent — as of 2011 it was 74.04. The trend is particularly pronounced for women. Despite this, why is the domestic service sector growing at an accelerated pace?

A: I think this has to do with the same trends that I mentioned earlier, relating to greater urban affluence and more women working in cities. There are also more young women enrolled in school than ever before. If they go on to college and work in the future, they are also likely to want to hire domestic help.

Q: Startups and other organisations attempt to bring these informal workers into the formal space, but your book tells us the formalisation process has not been as successful. What are the obstacles?

A: I’d say there are two big obstacles. What people think they should pay is really set by what people around them are paying — basically by the micro-economy they live in. So it can be really hard to convince people to pay more and if they agree to pay a lot more than their peers, they might end up expecting a lot more in return and being less flexible with their workers. Conversely, even though workers might be open to banding together and demanding that wages be at a certain level, they can’t control an influx of migrants willing to undercut them and work for less. But if there were more states with a law specifying a minimum wage for these workers, it would help.

Q: In your research how often did you find maids approaching the courts for justice against abuse? What are the challenges they face?

A: Anecdotally I’d say that it’s certainly not a first-resort option for women who aren’t able to collect pay or who are facing other problems. I’d also say there’s a real feeling that the employers are “big people”, and it’s going to be difficult to get police to take their complaints seriously. Most often women want to leave a bad situation, rather than file a complaint.

Q: What did your research tell you about the social mobility of this class of labourers?

A: There definitely is mobility but it can take more than one generation to happen. So the child of a young woman who comes to the city as a “24-hour” worker is probably not going to jump into the white-collared classes. But the child of a woman who has been working in Delhi for decades might well be able to. I met a woman in her 50s who started out as a cleaner in her teens and was a housekeeper in central Delhi when we met; her son worked at a top think-tank and, to my mind, is part of the Indian elite.

Q: Why did you focus your research on the Delhi-NCR region?

A: India is a really varied country and people’s relations with the help are pretty different, west to east, north to south. But Delhi/NCR is the capital, where its wealthiest and most powerful reside, which is why it seemed to me that looking at how well Delhi handles this relationship was really important, and maybe was a proxy for how India as a whole handles inequality and class.

Q: Which regions of India serve as the main sources of domestic labour and why?

A: The reasons that some states are “maid-sending” regions and others are not is down to the weakness of the economies of those areas. In the same way that there are multitudes of micro-economies in the capital, the country is a collection of pretty different economies — compare the minimum wages of Maharashtra and Jharkhand. It wouldn’t be unfair to compare the wealth of Delhi and its pull on the people of Jharkhand or other eastern states to the dynamic between the United States and Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s. For the same reason, you might hear people say that there are no Punjabi maids because the state is too rich. That’s not entirely true. But because the state is wealthier, their domestic workers are of a more advanced level: They have the knowledge and the connections to find work in Singapore, rather than Delhi. But that’s a topic for another book.

By Alison Saldanha


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New WhatsApp Terms of Service reveals close collaboration with Facebook



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New Delhi, Feb 22: In an apparent hint that Facebook is set to monetise its WhatsApp operations, a new Terms of Service (ToS) spotted in the Google Play Beta Programme says that WhatsApp will work with Facebook companies over the next year to help businesses connect with its 1.5 billion users.

WABetaInfo, a website that tracks WhatsApp Beta programmes, said that in the latest 2.18.57 version, WhatsApp has laid down plans to work closely with Facebook companies.

“For example, you might see Facebook options to start a conversation with a business on WhatsApp,” the new ToS read.

“If you use Facebook Company Products, we will ask Facebook to use the information it has about you and your interests to help us provide you a way to connect with businesses in a relevant and personalised manner through informational and marketing messages, business directory listings, [and other sponsored content/ads] on WhatsApp,” it added.

WhatsApp will also work with Facebook to measure the effectiveness of these connections for itself and the businesses.

“Once we start to work with Facebook on these relevant and personalised experiences, you’ll be able to manage the experience in your [Facebook ad settings and ad preferences] [and we will tell you when these are available],” the Facebook-owned messaging service said.

It, however, said added: “When we share your personal information with other Facebook companies, it will only be used to provide services to WhatsApp on our behalf in accordance with our instructions and terms or to help ensure the safety, security, and integrity of WhatsApp and other Facebook company products.

“Nothing you share on WhatsApp, including your phone number, will be shown on Facebook or any of the Facebook company products, unless you choose to show it,” the company said in the new ToS.

In the latest Beta version, WhatsApp said it is working to find useful ways for its users to connect with businesses on WhatsApp so they can receive things like order, transaction and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, marketing messages, business directory listings to discover businesses on WhatsApp, and other sponsored content/ads from these businesses.

To help businesses communicate better with their customers in India, WhatsApp last month officially rolled out “WhatsApp Business” — a free-to-download Android app for small businesses — in the country.

The new app, available on Google Play Store, will make it easier for companies to connect with customers, and more convenient for its users to chat with businesses that matter to them.

The app will help customers with useful information such as a business description, email or store addresses and website.

It will also save time with smart messaging tools like quick replies that provide fast answers to frequently asked questions, greeting messages that introduce customers to your business, and away messages that let them know you’re busy.


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Key Indian equity indices open on negative note



Mumbai, Feb 22: Taking a cue from global markets, the key Indian equity market indices on Thursday opened lower ahead of futures and options (F&O) expiry.

The Sensitive Index (Sensex) of the BSE, which had closed at 33,844.86 points on Wednesday, opened lower at 33,817.09 points.

Minutes into trading, it was quoting at 33,726.79 points, down by 118.07 points, or 0.35 per cent.

At the National Stock Exchange (NSE), the broader 51-scrip Nifty, which had closed at 10,397.45 points on Wednesday, was quoting at 10,341.60 points, down by 55.85 points or 0.54 per cent.

On Wednesday, bargain hunting by investors lifted the key Indian equity indices ahead of the F&O expiry, snapping a three-day losing streak.

According to market observers, healthy buying in IT, technology, media and entertainment and banking stocks added to the upward trajectory of the benchmark indices.

The Sensex was up by 141.27 points or 0.42 per cent at the Wednesday’s closing. In the day’s trade, the barometer 30-scrip sensitive index had touched a high of 33,911.36 points and a low of 33,702.50 points.

The Nifty too, was up by 37.05 points or 0.36 per cent.

On Thursday, Asian indices were mostly showing a negative trend.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 was trading in red, down by 0.91 per cent, Hang Seng down by 0.97 per cent while South Korea’s Kospi was also down by 0.49 per cent.

China’s Shanghai Composite index was the only quoting in green, up by 1.91 per cent.

Nasdaq closed in red, down by 0.22 per cent while FTSE 100 was up by 0.48 per cent at the closing on Wednesday.


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Jio to invest Rs 10,000 crore in 3 years in UP: Mukesh Ambani




Lucknow, Feb 21: Reliance Jio will invest another Rs 10,000 crore in Uttar Pradesh over the next three years, Reliance Industries Limited Chairman Mukesh Ambani said here on Wednesday.

“Today I am happy to inform this audience that Jio is one of the largest investors in Uttar Pradesh with investments of over Rs 20,000 crore. Jio is providing the highest quality data at the lowest price in the world to over 2 crore citizens of Uttar Pradesh,” Ambani said while addressing the Uc.

“I have come to Lucknow to assure the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister that Jio’s Digital Revolution is here to make the maximum contribution to UP’s development revolution,” he added.

While talking about affordable handsets, JioPhone, Ambani said: “Jio will make available over two crore JioPhones in UP within the next two months on a priority basis.”

He mentioned that Jio has already created over 40,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state.

“Jio will establish a Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution within the campus of a reputed university in Uttar Pradesh,” Ambani added.


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