If there’s one thing that the ongoing second wave of #MeToo movement in India has taught us, it’s that noise—trembling, shattering, even heart-thumping—matters. It’s not the kind that has bellowed without purpose. It’s the noise that has come from decades of oppressive fear, hushed whispers and dismissive shrugs, in spaces many treated as catalysts to their personal freedom and professional life. The social media movement has broken into a series of catharsis, turning decades of violations behind closed doors into a fertile ground for the survivors to reclaim their agency.
However, while the revolution has taken over urban conversations, a key demographic that shares this space with us—intimately so—are devoid of tools to give vent to their voice: the domestic workers. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 covers, among others, this community of professionals (only women, though). In a (not fully representative and admittedly small) survey conducted by Martha Farrell Foundation in the light of #MeToo early this year, over 29 percent domestic workers in Gurgaon and south Delhi reported sexual harassment at work, while 61.8 percent complained of being subjected to lewd gestures and whistling.
To understand the nebulous territory of domestic workers and sexual harassment, we turned to Hong Kong-based journalist Tripti Lahiri, whose thoroughly researched book, Maid in India (2017), has revealed many uncomfortable truths about the inherent class disparities within Indian households. “The maid becomes a metaphor for all the ways in which life in India is full of disappointing and exhaustive encounters and on whom, in the privacy of one’s home, it is acceptable to vent these frustrations,” she writes in her book.
Today, Lahiri’s work is even more relevant in order to understand why we need to look within our own living quarters. The author talks to VICE to reveal the shaky mechanisms that exacerbates the domestic workers’ vulnerabilities, and builds a case for why the #MeToo movement should now reach out to them, and not vice versa:
VICE: What are the common forms of harassment and abuse that domestic workers in India go through?
Tripti Lahiri: The most common types of abuse are verbal or physical abuse, and wage theft—for example, employers of a live-in worker may say they’re holding her wages and will pay her in a lump sum, and then when it comes time for her to go back to the village, they don’t give her the full amount. Then, because it’s a private space, there’s always the risk of sexual harassment, which could be anything from lewd looks or remarks to assault. It’s very hard to know at what rates workers face these various kinds of harm, since they would rarely be reported. Also, the risk of sexual harassment isn’t only from employers, but other workers in the household—though romantic relationships can happen between workers too.
Could you talk about how the Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplace Act 2013 (SHW) extends to domestic workers? Since domestic work is performed behind closed doors, are there more possibilities of systematic abuse?
It’s a pretty significant right that the sexual harassment law in 2013 was written to specifically cover women employed in homes as domestic workers, whether they’re full-time or part-time. However, just as many media organisations discovered in 2013 in relation to the allegations against then Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, that they hadn’t set up internal committees as required by that law or informed their employees how to complain to such a committee, the process for how a domestic worker can report a complaint is even more unclear.
Since a home is not going to have an internal committee, these workers are supposed to complain to a “nodal officer” for their municipality or ward, who’s supposed to forward the complaint to the local committee, which is made of eminent women and social workers. But do you know the nodal officer and local committee contact information for your area? I doubt most women are aware of how to get in touch with these committees, and domestic workers aren’t likely to be either. I also don’t know if all the committees have been set up across the country (for Delhi’s south district, the local committee was set up in 2016) or how responsive they are.
There are also rules that lay out a time limit for reporting incidents, for example three months from the last incident, though I believe the local committees can allow an extension if there were circumstances that prevented earlier reporting.
How aware are domestic workers of their rights under the sexual harassment act?
I know that some domestic workers’ rights groups that I’ve interviewed were aware the law covers these workers, but I don’t think regular workers are much aware of it or how to use it.
What mechanisms do the domestic workers have in India when it comes to reporting an offence against their employers? How effective are they?
Besides the local committee, other options might be reporting the crime to the police, an NGO or a church. I don’t think the police are particularly responsive to complaints brought by domestic workers, but NGOs can be, and churches can also be. I’ve heard of several cases of tribal Christian workers seeking help at churches in Delhi, since this is an institution they already know and trust. The question really is whom to trust.
In terms of day-to-day workings of an area, the Residents’ Welfare Association might be best placed to hear about an issue first, but these organisations are set up to represent property owners, not their staff, and are probably mostly uninterested in taking any responsibility on this issue. I think there would be a well-founded fear that any problem brought to the attention of the RWA would make its way back to the employer.
What other laws cover domestic workers, apart from SHW?
Clearly any laws on sexual assault apply to all workers, regardless of workplace. But labour law has generally been pretty silent on domestic workers. A handful of states have expanded minimum wage rules to cover them, but they are far from the majority. National child labor rules prohibit the employment of those under the age of 14 as domestic workers.
One thing to note is that many sexual assault criminal laws, and also the workplace sexual harassment law, don’t cover men. That may not seem like a big oversight given the relative power men have compared to women, but one-third of domestic workers are still male, and while many of them may be adults, families do still hire teen boys and they are also vulnerable.
In terms of a sense of agency, where do domestic workers stand with regards to their relationship with their employers?
The level of agency depends so much on who the worker is. A woman who has been working for a long time, has some education, and has been able to build networks with influential employers and also has some contacts with local community leaders or NGOs in the area where she lives, is in a very different position in terms of agency than a young woman who is put into a house by a placement agency and has limited contact with anyone outside the home where she works.
One of the key points of the #metoo movement is believing the survivor. How does this play out when it comes to domestic workers, whose mode of articulation is very different from what we’ve seen so far?
Ideas about who can be believed is deeply connected with class, gender, ethnicity, religion. The people who are receiving complaints and meant to adjudicate them are often going to side with people who are a lot like them—that could be male, or upper class, or Hindu. Those tendencies are most often going to be to the disadvantage of domestic workers. It’s also why, when wage or other fights break out between employers and workers, employers are quick to make accusations that further threaten the worker’s believability, by accusing her of theft or being an illegal migrant.
A research suggests that there are shockingly low numbers of reported cases (to the employer) by domestic workers. What, according to you, is the reason?
I think the reasons are similar to the reasons for any other woman not to report. Also, given the frequency with which we hear about horrible attacks on women or children in India, it may make some women feel that their own situation doesn’t rise to the level of being worth making a complaint. If I imagine the situation of a female worker who is probably battling on many fronts, from paying the rent, to trying to get and keep her children in school, to an exhausting journey to and from work—the idea of taking on another battle, and one they wouldn’t really expect to win, must seem just too daunting.