SALFORD, United Kingdom — India is home to 4 million domestic servants, many of whom face exploitation, abuse and expectation to tolerate poor working conditions while performing informal household chores. The real and unofficial figure is as high as 50 million servants who live in abject poverty in India.
The Borgen Project interviewed a domestic worker in the city of Gurgaon (now called Gurugram) near the country’s capital New Delhi. She has chosen to remain anonymous. The Borgen Project asked her about her working hours and income. “I work at five houses in a day. In total I work for 11 hours”, the interviewee explained. “I earn around 23,000 rupees ($278) per month.”
In general, Indian women do around 35 hours of house chores per week, whereas the men do only 2 hours. A shocking 90% of domestic workers, called maids, are women and children who are aged 12-75 years old. Around a quarter of them are below the age of 14, according to the National Domestic Workers’ Movement. “I started working when I was five years old at various jobs. But I started working as a maid when I was 12 years old”, the interviewee told The Borgen Project, “the little money I made went to my mother.”
Gender discrimination could be one of the main reasons why women from low-income households have no other choice but to find work as household laborers. Society still widely considers women and girls to have inferior intelligence compared with men. As a result of these societal and cultural beliefs, women have a much lower literacy rate than men, resulting in a lack of financial independence and ultimately increasing the rate of poverty in India.
“I did not go to any official school, but I went to a kind of free school in a temple until I was 13 years old”, the interviewee explained. “Currently, in my village, some people make their daughters study, and some do not. Mostly though, only the boys study. I really wanted to go to an actual school. It was difficult growing up with only my mom being the sole earner. She only sent my brothers to study. Growing up, I helped my mom to earn money for the family. My brothers went to school, and they now work at a passport office.”
The Influence of the Patriarchal Culture
On top of that, under the influence of the patriarchal culture, there is a belief amongst older women that educating a woman will make her “stupid” and less resourceful for the family. An older maid in Bangalore claimed “What good will education do? Look at girls these days, they do not care about a boy’s character at all. They only care about his money. Also, no man will want to marry a woman who is more educated than him.”
In comparison, when The Borgen Project asked the 25-year-old interviewee about her opinion about education, she replied, “If I had a daughter, I would definitely make her study because I really do not want her to go through the same experience that I have. My mom still believes in the old ideology that girls are not capable of anything but house help.”
Societal Expectations and Education
Society often expects women to bear children and fulfill familial duties by tradition. Around 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married every year in India. Girls are expected to drop out of school once they get married to attend to the household, ending their professional education and cutting their path towards financial independence, increasing the rate of female poverty in India. Speaking about the pressure of marriage, the interviewee said “The girls are expected to get married when they turn 13 years old. I got married when I was just 14 years old. I am now divorced and I have a son.”
Although domestic work can be a path to escape poverty, it also puts women at the risk of near enslavement. Even as laborers, they work without any standardized minimum wage, receive no protection from India’s labor laws and have to depend solely on their employers. This leaves the workers feeling powerless and helpless. They get rest time, holidays, wages and facilities at the mercy of the employer. The power hierarchy between servant and master has become the dogma in Indian society.
The Working Conditions
In India, people do not only traditionally consider cooking, washing and cleaning to be a woman’s work, but also the work of people belonging to the lower caste in the egregious caste system. Domestic servants have disadvantaged backgrounds and belong to vulnerable tribes. The Dalits or “the untouchables” are at the bottom of society in the inhumane caste system which is still active in India.
When asked about the treatment at work, the interviewee replied “I feel bad when the people I work for blame me for something that I have not done. They automatically suspect me first if anything wrong happens in the house. Otherwise, I mostly feel respected, but not all the time”, she went on, “I have heard terrible stories from other maids though. Someone once told me that she was given spoiled food and was verbally abused.”
Life at work is arduous, and some maids cannot find peace even at home. Violence against women is shockingly common. People often treat them with no respect even when they are the sole earners of the family. A maid working in Bangalore explains further “He would beat me every day. It was unbearable. I do not know a time when he did not drink,” Lacuna Magazine reports.
Without any proper education and no support from family or the government, the women have no other choice but to work as domestic servants receiving minimal wages. This aggravates the vicious cycle of generational poverty in India. The interviewee concludes “I have no other option but to work as a domestic servant. I can only read Hindi. I can tailor and work in a salon but that pays a lot less, so I do not do that.”
The Unorganized Sector Social Security Act 2008 established the first framework to protect the lives of all workers in general. Currently, NGOs such as Nirmana work tirelessly to achieve social security and dignified livelihoods for domestic workers. For over three decades, it has held national campaigns and advocated for policy change to increase awareness of the unorganized sector of workers.
As a part of Action Aid India, Women Wage Watch groups document labor law violations across 12 states to raise the cause to union and state governments. Just by giving a missed call, one can support relief distribution for the workers, increase awareness of their working conditions and help to break the cycle of poverty in India.
– Sharvi Rana