Thursday, May 19, 2011

“New law to protect domestic workers” should have been the lead story in the papers today.....

The lead stories in the papers today are the standard ones. At 7 am every day, with unfailing precision, the daily dose of misery pills are delivered by all the top newspapers of the country. I am now ngetting convinced that either India is amongst the worst five countries in the world or that newspapers have totally lost their sense of balance. Very soon, we will have to stop reading the front pages of newspapers and skip directly to the inside pages....where a better balance may be found. The story that caught my eye today was on page 13, titled “Sonia for regular wage, paid leave to maids”. This story should have been on page 1 since it talked of a radical change in laws that would raise the quality of life of as many as 45 lac domestic workers in the country. Instead, the paper decided to front face the various embarrassments the country has apparently been facing on a virtually daily basis since the last year (I, of course, don’t think there is any embarrassment at all).

This proposed piece of legislation is powerful. It’s very very true that the well-heeled in our country – those who hire the services of maids and drivers and cleaners – treat them shoddily. I have seen from personal experience the way some of my friends handle their domestic workers. Let’s look at just the plight of maids and drivers:

Maids – especially live-in maids – the life savers for most upscale urban people are treated the most shoddily. They work seven days a week, and virtually for 24 hours a day. They don’t have a decent place to stay....most manage with sleeping wherever they can find space for a thin mattress in the house. Most don’t have enough warm clothing in the winters. Most are discriminated against when it comes to food....left-overs become main courses for them. Separate bathroom? You got to be kidding....every family member can have a separate bathroom, but the maid has to manage either with a dingy dirty one if it exists; or use one that the family has “vacated” for her. There is full-scale practice of “untouchability” in this limited respect of bathroom usage. Everyone speaks rudely to the maid. An old maid is treated like a liability who has to be tolerated. If the maid breaks anything.....she’s shouted at. Some may go as far as to deduct the loss from her salary. When maids are taken to restaurants, it is only for them to take care of the young ones; never to eat at the same table. And finally....when it comes to setting salaries, maid salaries are determined by “market forces”. So the “malik’s” salary or income may have gone up 10 times in the last 10 years, but the maid’s has to increase at the minimum annual rate. Every pay hike has to be begged for....and the malik will then ask a few friends if the hike is justified. And if by any chance, the friend is paying a lesser sum, that’s the end of the maid’s plea.

Drivers – they are the “maids” of the male sex. Given the bias we have towards males in this country, most drivers manage to get away with slightly better terms than maids. A Sunday holiday is invariably part of the deal. Overtime as a concept is routine....even though the malik will fight tooth and nail to keep that figure down. Drivers are not expected to ever have any scrap on the roads....the same rules don’t apply to the maliks. If drivers sleep, they must not sleep in the car. Where they eat, what type of water they drink, where they pee....these are not the malik’s concern. And of course, driver salaries are determined by “market forces”!

I know of this cousin of mine in the US who told me that maids in that country are governed by specific laws. Since many of these maids are “international” workers who come from poorer countries like the Phillipines or Mexico, the laws try to assure them a certain minimum experience of the famed “American way of life”. The minimum pay is apparently $3500 per month; they are given a Sunday off; there are many other benefits with respect to working hours, quality of workplace etc. It’s the same story in Hong Kong where I know from personal experience (my brother used to work there), that a maid has to be treated with due respect and just as any other professional.

Why can’t we in India rise above our collective pettiness and adopt a progressive way of life? What good is the practice of religion when we cannot even understand the basic tenet of all religions, which tells us to treat all human beings as equal? Why are we so miserly in our approach to domestic workers? Will we ever improve....without the stick of the law? I doubt we will and hence I think the law that is being proposed is so important. If 45 lac domestic workers can get some dignity of work, for me that’s the lead story of the day.

But will newspapers put it on the front page? No way....their readers will get upset. Their readers will be told that they are being uncivilized and miserly. Why....they may even stop reading the newspaper and switch to a competing brand. In any case, as I have argued in the past, newspapers have given up being change agents of society. They are happy to be “mirrors” of society instead. If the society is all screwed up, they are ok to report that. Forget newspapers, even activists like Anna Hazare don’t want to be change agents. I have still not heard of him doing a fast to force his followers to start paying taxes in toto and on time. Basically, activists and media both, are happy pandering to the lowliness of the’s someone else’s job to raise society from this rut.

The real truth is that if implemented, this piece of legislation can raise India socially up a few notches. The law must prescribe annual wage increases, good working conditions, protection against sexual exploitation and the like. Media and activists must put pressure on political parties, so that all of them support this bill in parliament. If we as society cannot be good to our domestic workers voluntarily, then the law must do it by force. The “aam aadmi” (and that includes the “aam aurat”) needs a much more gracious treatment from PLUs (people like us).....

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