Widespread outrage ensued when while presenting the Annual Budget 2016, the Finance Minister announced that the government proposed to tax the Employees Provident Fund, an instrument of saving for the salaried class. News channels started debating the matter. #rollbackepf began trending on Twitter. A digital petition which received approximately 2.4 lakh signatures claimed the measure was a ‘draconian act’ and a ‘killer blow’ to the salaried class. The government withdrew the proposal. The injustice was undone. The author of the digital petition felt compelled to clarify that ‘he was not a hero.’ Democracy had won.
Which brings me to the question I ask this week: What about domestic help?
They don’t have any statute-mandated savings scheme that can be taxed. They are not protected by minimum wage legislation in many Indian states. Even in the states which do have such legislation, enforcement is rare. Imagine the outrage that would follow if the government were to pass a law prohibiting maternity leave tomorrow. Yet, a woman working as a domestic help would most certainly either lose her job or continue to work through maternity. A sari and a box of sweets are the standardised currency of annual/festive bonus. Full-time domestic workers do not have any fixed working hours or any private life. Any leave is discouraged. I could go on and on. Those who believe that the ‘market’ reasonably controls Wages in the unorganised sector are mistaken. Markets are not immune to the exploitation of the marginalised.
Incidents of physical and sexual abuse are also on the rise. Google the phrase ‘beating domestic help, ‘ and you will be shocked at the number of news reports that appear. Most women who work as domestic help are migrants and live in slums. There is a general fear of the police, and it is reasonable to infer that a significant number of such incidents are going unreported, especially those concerning full-time domestic help.
What domestic workers also don’t have is a voice. Reports that a government teacher in Delhi beat her domestic help do death or that a 14-year-old was tortured for months did not lead to any Twitter hashtags or candlelight protests or sudden changes in the law.
A comprehensive national law governing working conditions and wages accompanied by an awareness campaign is the need of the hour. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, includes domestic workers in its ambit but awareness about it is almost non-existent. I have repeatedly argued that if a violation of consumer rights merited a ‘Jaago Grahak Jaago’ campaign, rampant exploitation of domestic help is most certainly a worthy cause. In the absence of such a campaign most domestic workers will never find out about their rights, and any legislation will fail.
Unfortunately, however, the government appears to be in no tearing hurry. India is yet to ratify the 189th ILO Convention — Convention Concerning Decent Work For Domestic Workers — which asks its member-states to ensure, through legislation and policies, that domestic workers are treated equally with other workers in terms of work hours, compensation, conditions of work, periods of daily and weekly rests, annual leaves, social security and other benefits, right to form associations, and collective bargain. Attempts at universal financial inclusion by means of opening of accounts, etc. by successive governments are, however, a step forward.
Unfair payment of wages and exploitative work conditions appear to be a small problem in the face of the fact that we don’t even treat domestic helpers as human beings. The modern, 21st century India is comfortable with forcing the help (sometimes even her infant) to sit on the floor and not on our sofas or furniture. We refuse to share meals with them: it is a common sight to see domestic help eating food in a corner of the house, away from the rest of the family. I know rich, educated families in Delhi who still keep different utensils for their help. The leftovers are reserved for the pets and the help. Sharing a toilet is out of the question. Many buildings in Mumbai have separate lifts for the help. We have normalised treating them with humiliation.
One of the biggest challenges faced by humankind as a species is that we are still struggling to treat each other as a human being, unblinkered by considerations of class, gender religion and what not.
I often think about the words ‘humanity’ and ‘humane’. The Merriam Webster’s dictionary, inter alia, defines ‘humanity’ as ‘the quality or state of being kind to other people or animals’; the word ‘humane’ is defined as ‘characterised by tenderness, compassion and sympathy’. To be ‘inhuman’ is to be cruel. Perhaps it is time we look for another species with whom ideals of compassion can be associated. We seem to be falling woefully short.
This article was first published in Mumbai Mirror