In Karan Johar’s Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham, Farida Jalal plays the loving house help who teaches the infant Hrithik Roshan to tie his shoelaces and is in fact closer to the two sons, including Shah Rukh Khan, than their formidable father—played by Big B—is. The character of Kantaben, in yet another Shah Rukh Khan movie, Kal Ho Naa Ho, is central to the film’s gay humour. But that is Bollywood. In real life, the hired help, who lives close to the family, is not always treated with love, respect and trust.
In fact, when you read about the blood-chilling accounts of what employers are doing to their staff, it makes you wonder if some of the old values are being replaced by a set of cruel and inhuman ones. Recently, it was the news of a 14-year-old maid locked up in a cupboard. Rescued by an NGO and the police, the young girl, who was working for a couple in Gurgaon, was allegedly sold off by her uncle to a placement centre and then ‘employed’. From sexual assault to forced confinement, she had undergone many tortures and brutalities.
In Saudi Arabia, a 58-year-old woman’s arm was chopped off by a Saudi man who employed her as a maid. Her family members in Tamil Nadu reported that the woman was being tortured and starved by her employer, and that she was brutalised during her bid to escape. This news came close on the heels of another Saudi employer, who allegedly raped and tortured two of his housemaids from Nepal.
Unlike the Gurgaon couple, who has been arrested, the Saudi man is absconding, and despite pressure from External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the woman from Tamil Nadu is yet to see justice, even as she languishes in a hospital.
In the past, and this is not to view it with rose-tinted glasses but as a general observation, hired help were treated as an extension of the family and generations of cooks, gardeners, maids and massage-walis all grew up in our big extended families. Now, however, it’s an age where domestic help, whether placed to work in affluent homes abroad or middle-class families in India, are facing a serious threat to their safety and dignity.
The key indicator in these instances is that most of the victims of this senseless violence are women and, in some instances, young boys, both of who fall into the vulnerable category of domestic workers. Beaten, raped and subjected to such ignominies while receiving paltry or no wages at all, they are at the receiving end of the pent-up rage of couples or single men in nuclear families. So, then, what is it?
Is it the isolation from good family values that leads to this abuse? Is it the high-pressure life led by urbanites? Or just the fact that many of these victims are not respected by their own families and often sold off as indentured labour without anyone to look out for them? Whatever the reason behind this rise in abuse towards domestic workers, it must be nipped in the bud.
This modern-day slavery, as it is being tagged, can only be brought under control if there is a vigilant body to guard and monitor the rights of women working in the domestic space. The implementation of the domestic workers’ union’s demand, which insists on better wages and treatment for domestic help, is crucial today.
A study conducted by the NGO, Migrant Rights Council, indicates that violence against emigrant domestic workers is on the rise in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. There are an alarming 1,583 cases of violence against women domestic helpers during 2005-15.
Of the reported cases, only 60 per cent of the workers could actually make it back to their homeland. The remaining 40 per cent continued to live and work in their abuser’s homes hoping for some respite and help from the Indian government. It is clearly incumbent on the government to put into action units to monitor violation of migrant’s rights, alongside the need to regulate the mental and physical health of domestic help.
They suffer in silence, and it is inhuman to allow this to continue.
Dalmia is chairperson of Grievance Cell, All India Congress Committee