Invisible workforce at employers’ mercy
CHENNAI: Five years ago, 55-year-old Radha (name changed) was picked by the Bodi police in connection with the murder of her employer. It was the beginning of a nightmare, as she ended up spending close to 100 days behind bars.
Like her, Sumathi (early 20s) was interrogated and harassed by the men in khaki for allegedly stealing 80 sovereigns of gold jewellery from her employer’s residence in Madurai Town police station limit. The employer was a jewellery shop owner.
Except for being domestic workers in two different households, there’s another common factor that ties them — the duo had nothing to do with the crime.
Only later did the police find out that Radha’s employer was murdered by her brother over a property dispute, while Sumathi was a victim of her employer’s greed. He had clandestinely hidden the jewels to claim insurance and attempted to make her a pawn.
In both cases, family members of Sumathi and Radha were not spared. They were subjected to verbal and physical abuse by the police and often asked to admit to the crime, failing which they were threatened with dire consequences.
Days and months later, their names were cleared from the crime with the help of the labour union. But their lives were never the same.
Such cases are just the tip of an iceberg. Domestic workers continue to face discrimination in many forms.
For instance, in many homes, they’re not allowed to use the restroom. They’re not given weekly offs or allowed to take leave. Many maids are given a separate set of plates and tumblers to use. Employers often tell maids to send substitute workers for the duration the latter is menstruating. In apartment buildings, they’re not allowed to use the elevator. There’ve also been several cases of sexual abuse and assault.
Chennai, though considered a progressive metropolitan city, is also culpable of treating domestic workers as ‘less than’. “There are many untold stories like Radha and Sumathi. Many suffer in silence and endure discriminations and inhumane acts of their employers,” says Clara, domestic workers welfare association. “If anything goes missing from a household, the needle of suspicion immediately falls on them. The society is prejudiced. Law enforcement agency too never gives them a chance to explain or make their case. Any inquiry into crimes starts with these workers,” she said.
Pushpa, who had started to assist her grandmother, a domestic help then, at the age of seven, recounts many instances of molestation at the place of work at a young age.
“I am 47 years old now. But those moments still haunt me. I had no choice but to remain silent all through the abuse as it was my bread and butter. Nothing has changed for domestic workers like me as many continue to suffer in silence owing to such abuses,” she says.
Even during menstruation, employers demand that domestic workers come to work or send in a substitute, especially if they cannot turn up for 3-4 days. “This is the practice even today,” adds Pushpa.
Domestic workers also put up with lack of respect and abusive language on a day-to-day basis. “Even young children at our workplace do not respect us. We’re treated like slaves in many households,” rues Yashoda, a domestic help in Chennai.
In her 50s, Mariamma, a resident of Madurai, stopped going to work after her employers treated her badly. “I was told to enter through the rear entrance of the house. I was not allowed to use the restrooms there. It made things difficult for me. So, I decided to stop working at that house,” she recalls.
Health issues of domestic workers compound to their woes. Some are diabetic and find it difficult when not allowed to use the restrooms, while there have been instances in which women had to undergo hysterectomy due to work-related health complications.