It’s bad enough that we exploit our domestic workers. It’s worse when we employ children.

I was riveted and moved by an extraordinary novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett, about black women domestic workers in an American small town in Mississippi in 1962. The civil rights movement to end racial segregation and discrimination, which rocked the U.S., was yet to alter the unequal social relations between races in this small conservative Southern settlement. Stockett observantly recreates the segregation, distrust and disrespect that coloured women workers routinely endured while working in middle-class white households. In the novel, three women lead a secret rebellion by the unique device of anonymously writing about their experiences with their employers.

What troubled me deeply was that the humiliation and exploitation of domestic workers described in southern United States half a century back was, in many ways, less oppressive than the daily lived experience of an estimated three million domestic workers in middle-class homes across urban India in the second decade of the 21st century. And that this causes so little outrage.

Behind the walls of Indian middle-class houses, unequal India is produced and reproduced. This is where children of privilege learn early to accept and normalise inequality, lessons they carry for life. Domestic workers are the only elders they can command, call by their first names, and speak rudely to without being deterred. When a small boy of four is asked to touch the feet of all his elders, how does he know so early that he is expected to touch the feet of all older people — except the domestic help?

In the novel, one coloured help raises 17 white children in her lifetime of employment. She has to sacrifice the care-time she wanted for her own son so that she could earn the money to tend him. As babies, many white children love her more than their own mothers. Her heartbreak is that, when they grow up, most acquire the same prejudices as their mothers and treat her with the same casual disrespect and condescension. How many of us urban Indian middle-class adults have been similarly raised by women who neglected their own children, whom we have forgotten as we grow and they age?

In The Help, the “rebellion by writing” of domestic workers in Mississippi is spurred by the decision of some employers to build segregated toilets for their helps, which they find insulting. But in middle-class Indian homes this is routine. A study by Jagori in a poor suburb of Delhi found that, in 30 per cent homes, part-time domestic workers had no access to toilets at all. Of those who did, in 40 per cent homes, these are segregated. In The Help, domestic workers ate at dining tables but at different times from their employers. But in Indian homes, there are often separate plates for the help to eat from, and they almost never eat at the same table as the employers. For them, there is usually only the kitchen floor. They are not given the same food as the employers, but rationed quantities of coarser cheap food.

The Mississippi helps in the 1960s were modestly paid and worked eight hours with weekly off-days. Studies confirm that live-in Indian domestic workers today toil almost every waking hour, often seven days a week. Part-time helps are paid so little that they work in multiple houses adding up again to very long working hours. Both have few, if any, paid holidays. They are remunerated well below statutory minimum wages, protected by no labour law regulation and no social security contributions. Cuts are made for property damage; some report being denied their earnings by deceitful calculations and they are often accused of stealing. Their work of sweeping, cleaning and cooking entails numerous health hazards, compounded by poor and irregular food and little rest and recreation. Aged domestic help are routinely turned away to fend for themselves, with no question of any pension.

The dependence of urban middle-class households on domestic workers has grown further because of the entry of much larger numbers of educated women into the formal workforce. They depend critically on domestic carers to enable them work and earn, yet as Sujata Ghotoskar observes in a recent article, contributions of women domestics to the economy are grossly under-rated, partly because domestic care-giving work by women has always been both devalued and taken for granted. The growing economic dependence on them has increased their bargaining power a little but this is limited because they are mostly not organised. Domestic help assert their power today mainly by changing employers more freely than they did in the past.

Middle-class India’s greatest shame is its employment of underage children as domestic workers. A recent study in Karnataka found that 30 per cent domestic workers were children; in Mangalore, children were as high as 45 per cent. Parents battling hunger and debt in the teeming Indian countryside reeling from endemic agrarian crisis, and especially in tribal regions like Jharkhand, often surrender their children to agents who traffic them for domestic work in cities. Children are preferred because they are submissive and uncomplaining. Employers think nothing of sending their own children to school and play, while another child the same age is trapped by them in the drudgery of domestic work. In a home for street children run by my colleagues in Delhi, the Child Welfare Committees often send girls rescued from abusive domestic work in Delhi households. When I speak to them, their stories are shocking and shaming: of criminal neglect, slave labour and violence, utterly devoid of childhood. A girl of seven told me how her angry employer turned her onto the streets one day and of many horrors of her wanderings until she was rescued by the police.

Unequal India will begin to change only when we teach our children to treat people who care for us in our homes as equal human beings, of the same worth and dignity.