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People like us: how rich, educated treat domestic helps

It seems like an epidemic of maid abuse cases. Since October 1, a top executive in a foreign firm, an airhostess, a dentist and an NRI have been arrested for allegedly torturing their helps. Shivani Singh writes. Video shows MP's wife teaching dog tricks to maid

india Updated: Nov 18, 2013 12:01 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Dhananjay Singh,sexual harassment,domestic helps

We had not yet recovered from the horror played out in Member of Parliament Dhananjay Singh’s home in New Delhi’s VIP enclave when another horrific case of maid abuse tumbled out from a middle-class neighbourhood in east Delhi last week.

A 55-year-old Non-Resident Indian, in town to take care of her ailing mother, allegedly tortured her maid by branding her with hot kitchen tongs. A minor boy was rescued from her custody. Hired to take care of the old mother, he was reportedly confined to hospital for over two months.

We are still stunned by the details investigators gathered from the MP’s home. While a maid died of brutal beatings allegedly at the hands of his dentist wife, two others survived to tell the tales of extreme torture.

It almost seems like an epidemic of maid abuse cases. Since October 1, a top executive in a foreign firm, an airhostess, a dentist and an NRI have been arrested for allegedly torturing their helps.

We wonder if its ‘people like us’ who have become more brutal or it is just more cases being reported now?

READ: Video clip shows BSP MP Dhananjay Singh's wife Jagriti teaching 'dog tricks' to maid

Harassment of domestic workers by “educated, affluent” families is not uncommon.

I remember a boy at an acquaintance’s home who had to share his sleeping space with a dog at the top of the stairs till his uncle took him back to the village. The brutality was hard to explain because the employers, an educated couple, were loving parents to their daughter who was roughly the same age as the boy.

I have seen employers getting uncomfortable with their maids and drivers coming to work “well dressed” or wanting to sit on the chair and not on the floor. They are made to eat stale food from utensils kept separately for them.

Many parents feel no guilt in loading child helps with heavy bags and walk their overgrown children to the school bus. These actions spring from a feudal mindset. But what explains the pattern of abuse that is becoming increasingly sadistic, even life threatening?

We could seek psychological explanations in a tormentor’s built-up rage or pent-up frustrations. We have been told about the MP’s wife’s anger management issues.

But let us not try theorising such criminality. Enslavement and torture of such kind must be punished with a jail term and nothing less. The “upper class” tormentors should be treated like common criminals.

However, sadly, laws come into force only when such abuse is reported to the police. Domestic workers form the largest sector of female employment in the cities. Yet there is nothing to protect them in their workplace.

Working long hours with no rest breaks for low pay, women domestic workers, especially the live-in maids, often live a life of slavery. Working in private spaces, they have no exposure to the outside world, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

Domestic workers in India have been excluded from many of the fundamental protections most other workers enjoy under the Indian laws.

A National Policy on Domestic Workers that seeks to ensure minimum wages, paid leave, regulated working hours and right to form trade unions has been formulated by the labour ministry but is yet to be notified.

Karnataka and Kerala have notified minimum wages for domestic labour. In Delhi, there is nothing to ensure basic welfare of a domestic help, not even a minimum wage. Bulk of placement agencies that bring thousands of workers from tribal areas to Delhi are not regulated.

Even the ones registered have been found involved in human trafficking.

Since last year, the government has extended the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, a health insurance scheme, to domestic workers and also included them in the ambit of a new law prohibiting sexual harassment at workplace. Yet, there is no legal protection specific to domestic workers. The weakest of the workforce continues to be the most vulnerable inside our homes.

First Published: Nov 18, 2013 00:08 IST