There is a scene in Munnabhai Lage Raho where the hero, Munna, says the best way of judging someone’s character is to see the way he treats the people who work for him. If we use this as a yardstick, then probably most of us would not pass muster. Recently, the Delhi Police arrested a 52-year-old, senior government official for sexually abusing his 17-year-old domestic help. The girl, a resident of Bengal, was brought to the capital by a placement agency. This is not an isolated incident. But what is doubly appalling is the attitude of the well-heeled residents of the colony where she lived and worked: asked whether they had any clue about what was going on, one of the residents said they knew but never bothered because they thought these were ‘rumours’. This sums up our attitude towards those who keep our homes running while we are away attending to our busy lives.
From denying them food to torture, we treat our helping hands as slaves. They have no regular working hours and are often shortchanged when it comes to salaries. The majority of domestics come from rural areas, leaving behind a support structure. In this alien world, they are at the mercy of the placement agencies. They are lured with promises of a better life, but many end up in the flesh trade. Neither the government nor the NGOs have any clue about the exact number of domestic workers in Delhi, let alone in India. Even the Bill for the rights of workers in the unorganised sector included those in the domestic sector only after the Supreme Court’s nudge in 2005.
While the government is doing all it can to protect housemaids working abroad from abuse, the ones languishing in its own backyard get step-motherly treatment. Housemaids going abroad will be accredited with the government and will be taught legal emigration in case they fall into the hands of touts. The government will also make sure that they send money regularly to their provident fund accounts in India. Similar protection needs to be extended to workers here too. Laws need to be put in place to monitor and regulate placement agencies. Last, but not least, we need to change our feudal mindset and treat those in whose hands we leave our homes and children with a modicum of compassion.