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Mitali Saran: A new broom

Mitali Saran 

Mitali Saran

The pleasures of a hotel room are somewhat different, depending on whether you come from an Asian economy or a Western one, and whether you are male or female. If you'll permit a generalisation or two, here they are. A middle-class man from anywhere will likely feel very little difference in the experience, besides, possibly, fancier rooms. In a hotel his food still magically appears on a plate, and his clothes still magically disappear and reappear, clean, in his closet. He might notice a drop in his bank balance, but that's about it. A middle-class Asian woman will feel one important difference: she won't have to supervise staff, or work out the logistics by which that staff will shop for groceries or care for children. For her, being in a hotel is a holiday from the headaches of daily personnel management.

It is probably the middle-class Western woman who really gets to kick back in a hotel, whether on a vacation or on a work trip. No food to cook, no crockery to clean, no laundry or ironing, no vacuuming or dusting, no sewing buttons back on, no picking up and dropping kids. No recipes to research, no grocery shopping, no supplies running out, no appliances to repair.

The pleasures of a hotel room rest, therefore, on how much domestic work you already outsource on a regular, daily basis. Millions of middle-class Asian women look at middle-class Western women and think, Phew. There, but for the grace of god, go I.

Given how much freedom and leisure Asian families are granted by what many Indians still - without a trace of self-consciousness - call servants, it's amazing how poorly those families treat their liberators. Attitudes range from condescension to bullying to straight-up brutality and torture. Month after month we read about employers who have locked up their domestic workers, overworked them, starved them, wrongfully confined them, and always, always underpaid them.

The news is peppered with instances of maltreatment of domestic workers, some egregious. Most recently, two instances of brutality towards domestic workers stand out. In one, a south Delhi-based employer kept her domestic worker locked up, allegedly peeled off her skin with knives, hit her, made her drink urine, and sometimes stripped her naked. People who examined her reported that worms were oozing from her wounds. In the second instance, the dentist wife of a member of Parliament who regularly thrashed her staff, demonstrated more follow-through and allegedly killed her maid, after which her husband allegedly dismantled all the security cameras in the house that might have footage of the crime. Domestic workers - mostly women and children - are trafficked, sexually assaulted, incarcerated and unpaid on a regular basis.

Only extreme examples of torture or sexual assault make it to the news, of course. The vast majority of employers are not nearly as awful as that to their help - but then we live in a country where speaking rudely or unkindly to someone less rich or less well connected or in a more menial job than yourself is not seen as unacceptable. It's not unacceptable to bring your maid along to a restaurant where the family sits at a table and the maid stands through the meal. It's not unacceptable to be in a chauffeur-driven car and talk about the stupidity and incompetence of the driver, on the assumption that his or her dignity does not even feature as part of the social calculus.

The "good" employers do their bit by paying for workers' health care and their children's school fees. But they still won't raise their salaries to a living wage that allows for savings and a little entertainment. If anyone pays their domestic helpers above average rates, they get grief from their social circle for "spoiling them".

Perhaps this is because of the general consensus that the poor are not meant to have entertainment. They must be all work and no play, because … well, they can't afford - and probably don't deserve - play, or self-fulfilment, or frustration or aspiration, because, damn it, they should just be grateful that they have a job at all. It is also part of the consensus that domestic work is simply (mostly) women's work for love of their families, and it would be a travesty to pay them for it. So who needs to treat their substitutes as if they're doing work worth paying real money for?

Domestic workers in India are only just starting to get organised to demand better working conditions, better safeguards and better pay. They may get some legal protection if the draft Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, 2010, is passed. But at the end of the day, their working conditions will only really improve when India's attitude to the worth of domestic work changes.

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First Published: Fri, November 08 2013. 22:42 IST