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Grim reality of domestic helps in bondage

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Grim reality of domestic helps in bondage

 

Ambika Pandit

New Delhi

 She came to Delhi as a young wife, and the responsibility of bringing up her children pushed her into joining the unorganised workforce of domestic helps. The challenge lay in her name -Maryam. House after house turned her down, she said, because her name identified her as a Muslim. Finally , on the advice of some kindly neighbours, she assumed the name of Bimla. Sure enough, she got hired. “Aaj main jin chaar ghar mein kaam karti hoon woh merey kaam key liye mujhey jaantey hain (The four families I work for now know me for my honest labour),“ she says.Maryam hails from Masaurha village of Purba Champaran in Bihar. Hundreds of domestic workers like her leave their slum shacks every day to work in the capital’s colonies. But their lowwage jobs leave them prone to accusations of theft, physical abuse and a continuous probing of their caste and religious identities.Outside Maryam’s shack, other women congregate under a tree, eager to air their concerns. One of them says that when a prospective employer learnt she was from Azamgarh, she was skeptical due to the notoriety associated with her hometown. “What does my town have to do with my work?“ the maid wondered aloud.

Maya, who has taken up the cause of domestic helps of her area under the banner of Delhi Gharelu Kamgar Sangathan, interjects, “When we seek work, why are we first asked about where we come from? Does being a migrant from West Bengal, UP or Madhya Pradesh make us different from other migrants?“ A timid Anjali, who hails from Bengal, discloses she was locked up by a family after being accused of attempting to steal money and was rescued by neighbours when she shouted for help. The other participants explained Anjali’s predicament as arising from the bias about workers from certain states and districts.

The recent case in Noida involving a domestic worker and her immediate branding as a Bangladeshi by the residents of the luxury residential complex she worked in is not an aberration. The capital has numberless families that come from Indian states but end up being misidentified as Bangladeshis. This also leaves them susceptible to accusations, or redress when such charges are proved unjustified.Kanti is a case in point.In her mid-40s, her knees in bad shape, she gave up being a daily-wage labour and began work as a cook two years ago. Her employers in west Delhi accused her of stealing Rs 20 lakh and half a kilogram of gold. “My employers questioned me from midnight till 5 in the morning. I kept pleading that I had not stolen anything, but they took me to the police station and summoned my husband and sons. I had to record my statement and go to Tees Hazaari Court, even undergo a narco-analysis test. After two years of this, they told us the matter was resolved.“ By now in tears, Kanti asked, “What about my honour? Who will restore it?“ She was so traumatised by the incident that she stopped working.

These humiliations come with wages as low as Rs 1,000 a month for dishwashing and mopping the house. A maid makes Rs 4,000 or so working in three homes daily . For those who also cook and do the laundry , the monthly take could be around Rs 6,000.Sometimes, getting even the rightful pittance is a challenge. Sita, 35, reveals that her employer suddenly terminated her services after charging her with stealing Rs 1 lakh and gold bangles. “They paid me just Rs 500 of the Rs 2,500 due to me,“ says Sita. Along with friends, she confronted the lawyer who had hired her only to be told that the law was on his side.“He told us, `I will employ and chuck out maids by the hour.What can you do?’“ she recalls.

Another who never got her money was a 15-year-old student in a west Delhi slum. She began work as a house help to earn money to buy her Class XI textbooks. A fortnight into work, she was accused of theft and police picked her from her house at 4am. The distressed girl never received the wages for the days she worked. And while accusing her, everyone seemed to ignore the fact that her employer was, in fact, in violation of child labour laws.

Despite such horror sto ries, women in thousands seek employment in up scale homes. Mohan Devi Sahu, a 40-something from UP , sums up the dis piriting story of domestic helps like herself. “My mother was a maid,“ be gins Sahu. “As a young mother, I too worked in homes to support my chil dren and now my daughter is a maid in the same blocks in Kalkaji.“ And then she sighs, “No laws, no regu lations, and respect is still a far cry.“

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