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Maids’ riot at luxury high-rise reignites debate over domestic labour in India

Updated July 17, 2017


Haseena Bibi stands in front of a crowd of shouting maids opposite the Mahagun Moderne residential complex in New Delhi.─The Washington Post
Haseena Bibi stands in front of a crowd of shouting maids opposite the Mahagun Moderne residential complex in New Delhi.─The Washington Post

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 illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It has also prompted calls for India to re-examine its attitudes and policies about its more than four million domestic workers, many of whom work 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 normally there, washing dishes, folding clothes and tending 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 Zohra Bibi, the maid at the centre of the dispute, had been taken advantage of and that they might be next. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” one of the protesters, Haseena Bibi, said.

India’s elite have for centuries employed servants, but economic liberalisation 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 centres to tend to the needs of the elite.

Some state governments have tried in recent years to regularise 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 draft legislation that would protect the rights of domestic workers with 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.”

‘The poor are not human’

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 — mostly migrants from the state of West Bengal — 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.

Zohra Bibi, 26, from West Bengal, claimed that when she went to her employers’ home to collect $125 in back pay, she was assaulted, threatened and ended up hiding out overnight in another part of the complex. “Madam 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 frightened family eventually escaped the melee with the help of security guards.

‘Everyone is scared’

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

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2017