Maids’ riot in In­dia stokes de­bate over treat­ment, pay

Do­mes­tic work­ers toil long hours, have lit­tle le­gal pro­tec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­NIE GOWEN AND VIDHI DOSHI an­nie.gowen@wash­post.com vidhi.doshi@wash­post.com

new delhi — A vi­o­lent protest by maids at a lux­ury high-rise in In­dia and its bit­ter af­ter­math have rekin­dled de­bate about the treat­ment meted out to the grow­ing ranks of do­mes­tic work­ers in the coun­try.

Dozens of an­gry maids burst through the gates of the Ma­h­a­gun Moderne apart­ment com­plex just out­side the cap­i­tal, hurl­ing stones and break­ing win­dows, un­der the be­lief that a fel­low do­mes­tic worker had been held by her em­ployer there against her will in a pay dis­pute, po­lice have said.

Po­lice are still try­ing to de­ter­mine the ex­act cir­cum­stances of the dis­pute — whether the em­ployer was re­fus­ing to pay back wages, as the maid al­leges, or whether she stole money, as the em­ploy­ers claim. More than a dozen peo­ple have been ar­rested in the in­ci­dent, and a flurry of po­lice com­plaints have been lodged.

The in­ci­dent has sparked an in­tense back­lash on so­cial me­dia, with crit­ics por­tray­ing the maids as law­less un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants from Bangladesh. It has also prompted calls for In­dia to re­ex­am­ine its at­ti­tude to­ward and poli­cies about its more than 4 mil­lion do­mes­tic work­ers, many of whom toil long hours for low wages with lit­tle le­gal pro­tec­tion.

For now, the gates of the Ma­h­a­gun Moderne, in the New Delhi sub­urb of Noida, re­main closed to the more than 500 helpers who work there, wash­ing dishes, fold­ing clothes and tend­ing to the chil­dren, af­ter res­i­dents en­acted a “maid ban” in re­sponse to the vi­o­lence.

The do­mes­tic work­ers said they feared los­ing their jobs per­ma­nently but had been moved to protest be­cause they be­lieved that Johra Bibi, the maid at the cen­ter of the dis­pute, had been taken ad­van­tage of and that they might be next.

“We’ve never done any­thing like this be­fore,” said Haseena Bibi, one of the pro­test­ers.

For cen­turies, In­dia’s elite have em­ployed ser­vants, but eco­nomic lib­er­al­iza­tion and the rise of the mid­dle class meant that the num­ber of cooks, maids and driv­ers has grown ex­po­nen­tially in re­cent decades, jour­nal­ist Tripti Lahiri wrote in a re­cent book, “Maid in In­dia.” Hun­dreds of thou­sands have mi­grated from vil­lages to In­dia’s five ma­jor ur­ban cen­ters to tend to the needs of the elite.

Some state gov­ern­ments have tried in re­cent years to reg­u­lar­ize wages for do­mes­tic work­ers — in Ra­jasthan, for ex­am­ple, they now must be paid at least $87 a month. But many make less than that.

An opin­ion piece in Satur­day’s Hindu news­pa­per called for the gov­ern­ment to en­act leg­is­la­tion that would pro­tect the rights of do­mes­tic work­ers, in­clud­ing tak­ing such mea­sures as re­quired reg­is­tra­tion and a man­dated so­cial se­cu­rity fund.

Class di­vi­sions be­tween house­hold staff and their af­flu­ent bosses re­main deeply en­trenched, Lahiri writes: “We eat first, they eat later . . . we live in front, they live in the back, we sit on chairs and they sit on the floor, we drink from glasses and ce­ramic plates and they from ones made of steel and set aside for them, we call them by their names, they ad­dress us by ti­tles.”

In Noida, more than 2,000 fam­i­lies live in Ma­h­a­gun Moderne, a 25-acre com­plex with swim­ming pools, a tennis court and land­scaped path­ways. A short dis­tance away, their house­hold help live in tin-roofed huts in a muddy field, bathing from a com­mu­nal tap.

Lahiri said such mi­grant shan­ty­towns of­ten de­velop next to build­ings in Noida, be­cause the res­i­dents don’t want to give rooms in their homes to the helpers.

“There are also a lot of daily in­jus­tices that peo­ple swal­low when they’re work­ing as help, and then, at some point, the sup­pressed anger and fear co­a­lesce around one par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent, which is maybe what we saw,” she said.

Bibi, 26, from West Ben­gal, claimed that when she went to her em­ploy­ers’ home to col­lect $125 in back pay, she was as­saulted and threat­ened and ended up hid­ing overnight in another part of the com­plex.

“Madame said to me, ‘If you try to run away, I’ll throw you in the dust bin. I’ll kill you,’ ” she said.

The maid’s hus­band, Ab­dul Sattar, a con­struc­tion worker, said that af­ter his wife did not re­turn home Tues­day evening, he went to the em­ployer’s home with po­lice look­ing for her and was told she was not there.

“No one does any­thing for us. No one helps,” Sattar said. “God makes us poor. What can we do? We do what the rich tell us to do. We sit where they tell us to sit. They reign over us. Even you know the rich and the poor can never be one. They think the poor are not hu­man.”

The maid’s em­ployer, Mi­tul Sethi, said in his po­lice complaint that the maid ran off af­ter a con­fronta­tion with his wife over a theft in the home. The next day, he said, they were con­fronted by a crowd that started “pelt­ing our home with stones and sticks,” break­ing win­dows and at­tempt­ing to as­sault them. The fam­ily even­tu­ally es­caped with the help of se­cu­rity guards.

In the days since the as­sault, both the lux­ury com­plex and the ten­e­ment set­tle­ment where its work­ers live re­main tense.

Work­ers won­der when po­lice will raid again and whether the set­tle­ment will be torn down. And the res­i­dents of the high-rise have their own con­cerns — will the ri­ot­ers re­turn? Will their chil­dren be safe at the bus stop? Mean­while, they are mak­ing do cook­ing and clean­ing for them­selves as they wait for a com­mu­nity meet­ing to plan a way for­ward, ac­cord­ing to one res­i­dent who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of se­cu­rity con­cerns.

“Mobs just can’t gather like this and take the law into their own hands,” she said. “Ev­ery­one is scared.”

“Even you know the rich and the poor can never be one. They think the poor are not hu­man.” Johra Bibi, the maid at the cen­ter of the dis­pute

Swati Gupta con­trib­uted to this re­port.

VIDHI DOSHI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Johra Bibi, who says she was beaten and de­tained by her em­ployer af­ter de­mand­ing two months of back wages, lies on a cot out­side her home near the Ma­h­a­gun Moderne com­plex.

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