Of Pride And Prejudice: How We Treat Our Domestic Helpers

Posted: December 5, 2014

Indian society’s double standards often result in the ill treatment of domestic helpers. We cannot wish for a better world if we don’t start at home, says this post.

One of the dictionary meanings of pride is “consciousness of one’s own dignity”. Of prejudice is “preconcieved opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”. Well, I am not thinking of reviewing Jane Austen’s famous book by the same name. Nor am I turning to English grammar lessons to fill up my blog posts. The reason why I thought of this caption for my post is because it is based on  a very relevant experience, which I want to share with you.

Recently, we had been to a very hip and hep flea market. The place was filled with people casually strutting in designer clothes, shoes, sunglasses, and selling other forms of designer stuff! After roaming around for quite some time, we sat down in the dining tents. The table next to us had a group of young women close to my age, who, needless to say, were among the designer-wear group (not that I have anything against this, but what I want to stress upon is the fact that these were definitely people who had basic education, access to social media, television, newspapers and books.)

One among these had a small child, say about four years old, sitting in a pram. Also a part of the entourage were two young girls, one to push the pram, and one to hold on to all the shopping bags.

The women ordered a large amount of food and started to eat. The mother of the child (rather rudely) called on to the hired help(somehow I find the word “servant” extremely creepy) to feed her son. As any other four-year-old, the boy was restless in his pram and fussy due to the heat. The girl tried to feed him, but was largely unsuccessful. The mother then asked the girl to chuck all the uneaten food in the waste bin. I cringed, but kept looking.

Both the girls looked longingly at the food, but did as was instructed. Then the mother gave some money to the girl. I was a little pacified that she was feeding them, but then I realised that she had sent them to buy a bottle of cola. Till everyone finished, both the girls stood next to the table. No one offered them a seat. There were plenty of chairs around. The girls did not think of it as out of place.They kept standing till the very end – when the mother and her friends finished, got up and took the child. Then, both the girls sat down on the lawn, opened their small tiffins, and ate from them.

I consider myself very just. Therefore, I was suitably upset at this gross injustice. I mentioned this to my husband angrily. He told me that I was an equal party to the injustice. The least I could do was to get up, take a chair, and offer it to the girls.This took me aback. It made me sad, and questioned my sense of justice.

We have such deeply ingrained notions of how our domestic help should behave, that despite all our understanding and education, we subconsciously consider ourselves somehow superior to them.

It seemed to me that he was right. We have such deeply ingrained notions of how our domestic help should behave, that despite all our understanding and education, we subconsciously consider ourselves somehow superior to them. There are small things which almost all of us practice…eg. not allowing the domestic help to sit on the sofas, expecting them to wait for us to serve them food (which they have cooked for us in the first place), feeding them leftovers (which we do not eat ourselves), not giving them a room in the house ( most end up sleeping in halls, corridors, or kitchens), and expecting them to wait on our every whim!

And worse, most of our help believe that this is what they deserve! None of them rebel. Even though we know it is wrong, we allow such things to continue. We excuse ourselves saying that we continue with these practices because we can’t upset everyone in the extended family (labelled in-laws, parents, grannies, and the like)  or that the maid does not mind, or that we have never asked the maid not to sit on the sofa. But we didn’t ask her to sit on it either! In the process, we become party to a grave human rights violation!

Enabling helplessness

Recent International Labour Organization(ILO) estimates (based on national surveys and census in 117 countries) place the number of domestic workers at around 53 million. But experts say that due to the fact that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million. The ILO also states that 83% of domestic workers are women and many are migrant workers.In India itself, there are approximately 4.2 million domestic workers.To put things in perspective, this is the population of the whole of Bangalore!

In India itself, there are approximately 4.2 million domestic workers.To put things in perspective, this is the population of the whole of Bangalore!

There are no laws to protect their rights, no minimum wages, no minimum or maximum age limit, no freedom to express anger, frustration, or any other emotion, and no actual definition of what their work does not include!

Even people whom we have chosen to represent our country internationally have been offenders this way. Though there was a huge hue and cry when IFS officer and doctor Devyani Khobragade was strip searched by the US officials, not many remembered the fact that she had committed a fraud by taking house-help disguised as family, probably so she could pay a lesser wage (the excuse being that anything she earns in the US would be more than what she earned in India), and made her work really long hours without respite even during times when she was ill!

But there were only few protests in Sangeeta Richards’ favour (that is the house-help, by the way. I bet not many know her name!). So, education makes no difference, really.

This took me back to Arvind Adiga’s “The white tiger” which tells a rags-to-riches story of a small town boy who works as a hired help. He ends up becoming a goon and exploiting people whom he had served, in spite! In short, he got turned from a decent person into a sociopath!

There is a concept in psychology called “learned helplessness”, which says that when someone is made to face oppression constantly, without the sight of an end over a period of time, the person learns to accept that oppression without rebelling or trying to find a solution to it.

Sometimes, I feel that we are responsible for turning our household help into either sociopaths or zombies, just because of our pride and prejudice. No law can help unless the change come from within our hearts to accept them as our equals (sometimes, superiors – my help can make better dosa batter than I can ever expect to!) and to give them the dignity that they deserve.

This post was because in my sense of misplaced pride that I could not interfere in someone else’s affairs, I did a gross injustice. I did not rebel against injustice. If I can reduce the prejudice in any one mind, I think I can consider it my repentance!

Pic credit: Image of hands behind a barbed wire via Shutterstock

This post was first published here.

I am a psychiatrist by profession, a mother twice over by choice, and a dreamer.

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