The recent brutalisation of a minor domestic worker in the Capital has taken aback everybody. However, most of us know this is not the first incident in which a woman domestic worker has been abused like this; this incident just adds to the swelling statistics of abuse of domestic workers across the country.
The other disturbing issue which many of these incidents highlight that when such matters surface, neighbours often report that they had always heard screaming or sometimes even knew that the abuse was happening. The question arises, then, why couldn’t they report it the minute they felt something unusual was on? Why couldn’t they come out and take a step when the victim had been facing a long period of trauma and torture?
Neighbours in this particular incident, like many others in the past, couldn’t stop the abuse for a long time because they couldn’t look at the home as the domestic worker’s workplace, but simply as a private space of the employer, to which the employer constantly denied them entry. Even the police had a tough time entering the house and finally rescuing the girl. This raises the question on the notion of ‘privacy’ itself which seems to be providing a shield for the exploitation of the victim.
Actually, domestic workers’ site of work doesn’t belong to them as it is their employers’ zone of privacy. It is not difficult to imagine that when such screams are heard in many situations, people won’t intervene. The State does not recognise domestic work as work because it happens in private homes, and it is primarily the nature of their place of work which makes domestic helps vulnerable to such violent experiences, considering these spaces are not open to public scrutiny like any other workplace.
The inhuman treatment has got a lot of attention and the employer has been condemned. However, one should not forget that unless domestic workers are recognised as workers and the homes they work in as ‘workplace’—a place with some claims, accessible for inspection by labour inspector, and with well-defined roles -– there will always be extreme incidents of violence like this, which however camouflage the invisible routine violence occurring everyday.
The routine forms of violence are important to contemplate as this particular shameful incident which has made everybody think of the working conditions of the domestic workers. Violence is not just about the visible and extreme harm on one’s body but it is also about acts which constantly shut one up every time one feels the need to resist something. It is the process that leads to one’s inability to make a choice, speak up, and to be free. The routine nature of violence is not visible because it gets dissolved in the conduct of everyday life which doesn’t allow it to be stark.
This often takes the form of the denial of usage of toilet, separate utensils, serving old and even rotten food. Of course, not all employers ill-treat their helps, but then the question arises what can be defined as ill-treatment in such contexts, given there are no standards to judge? In the absence of any comprehensive law on domestic workers rights’, particularly to their workplace, even the everyday interactions between employers and domestic workers carry the seeds of such extreme forms of violence.
In Delhi, for example, many housing societies of “respectable people” build separate toilets for their maids and other service-class people. These toilets can be as far as a 10-minute-walk from the workplace, and often these toilets could be locked and the key could be with the male chowkidar. It could also be located on the terrace, on the fifth floor, while the workplace could be in the basement.
A part-time domestic worker says that even if she desperately had to use the toilet she would not ask her employers because if they say no to her, she would be hurt. She also shares that, once, in the same society, a live-in maid used her employer’s toilet; when the employer found this out, she was embarrassed and thrashed in public.
People can justify separate toilets, separate food, and separate utensils or simply denial of any resource in the name of privacy. However, this privacy is not neutral and innocent; it hides the employer’s values and beliefs, based on class and often caste privilege, that, some people are less worthy. The belief that your maid can control her physical urge to urinate and can climb several floors just to use the toilet is a sign of the devaluation which gets institutionalised through such arrangements.
But, separate toilets are still better than the cases in which workers are just assumed to go out, which could be anywhere. This treatment only highlights how often employers treat their maids as inferior beings.
The incident that took place in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj is certainly criminal, and not acceptable, but it is also not “inhuman”, as it is being called, as if it is a rare exception. By calling it inhuman, we will conveniently turn our faces away from the everyday reality of domestic work relations in the household space.
(The writer is a researcher at the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi)