Welcome back Ms Khobragade, now I can read my newspaper in peace!
So Ms Devyani Khobragade is back home. What a relief! India’s ‘pride’ has finally been restored. It was so badly bruised by the American high-handedness when they ‘strip searched’ Ms Khobragade who was arrested for under-paying her domestic worker in violation of official declaration made in her visa documents.
I swear I do feel relieved. Because now I will hopefully be spared of any further embarrassment of reading every morning the latest diplomatic shenanigans to protect a person who is accused of over-working and under-paying her domestic worker. While one doesn’t condone the indignity meted out to Ms Khobragade by the US Marshals, but the outrage of the Indian ruling class at the audacity of a domestic worker to accuse her employer of under paying her (that too in a foreign land) exposes the parochial and feudal mindset of this country.
Beating, maiming, sexually assaulting, over working, under paying and even murdering domestic workers is not so uncommon in India. It’s done as a matter of routine. Not so long ago, a BSP leader and his wife were arrested for killing and maiming two women who used to work in their government bunglow in New Delhi. In another instance, a 15 year old girl was found in a south Delhi home battered and semi naked, who was being regularly chained, attacked with knives and made to drink urine and sleep in the toilet by her employer. Media reported that in 2013 alone 170 cases of violence against domestic workers were reported from Delhi. The numbers are surely much higher since in most instances these cases are not reported unless the violence is so extreme that the workers die or are brutally injured.
Estimated numbers of domestic workers in this country is over 90 million (labourfile), majority of whom are women, children, migrants and from oppressed castes and adivasis who leave their homes to work in the houses of people in other cities and towns. The wages are paltry depending on the nature of employment. There are different categories of domestic workers: live-in, live-out and part-time. Their wages vary anywhere between the range of Rs 800-Rs 8000 for different categories of employment. As per various NGO reports, plight of the live-in domestic workers are more pathetic than the others because they are literally on 24 hours call and are often the most abused lot. The right to get decent wages, safety at workplace and dignity for their work still remains a far cry for these women. The central and state governments dither over enacting minimum wages and protection for domestic workers despite years of campaigning by various unions and NGOs. National Policy on Domestic Labour by Ministry of Labour still remains on papers and India is yet to ratify the ILO 2011 Convention on Domestic Workers.
But will law really protect these women? While one is not opposed to the enactment of laws to protect the domestic workers, how does one address the issue of social and economic inequality in our social structures? The fact that within households generally domestic work is not considered as ‘work’, its seen more as duty of a woman, the fact that 90% of domestic workers are from socially and economically oppressed castes or are adivasis, that majority of them are women and children are issues that need more than just the stick of law. And the laws don’t get passed because people who make these laws are the ones who will be the first to be affected being employers of domestic workers.
Coming back to Ms Khobragade’s case, while one is not privy to the case details apart from what the media has reported, the overwhelming sympathy for the foreign diplomat (ironically who also won the sympathy of BSP chief Ms Mayawati’s for being a dalit woman) has opened up a can of worms. Its shows how we carry with us our class-caste biases and reproduce them wherever we go. So its not a surprise that Indian bureaucracy did not find any merit in the charges leveled against the diplomat by her domestic worker, but what it took exception to is the audacity of an underdog to cry foul and expose her master. In the ensuing diplomatic and political row between India and the US, the core issue of how we treat domestic work and workers got lost.
The diplomatic alacrity that was shown to protect Ms Khobragade is almost never shown in cases of Indian migrant workers stuck in jails or detention centres across the Gulf countries or are abused by their masters in foreign land. These men and women are dispensable, but Ms Khobragade is not. She is a bureaucrat, she has immunity and privilege that we ordinary citizens and certainly not the working class, enjoy. If we strip search Khobragade, we stand exposed to the world! Of our class and caste biases. And that is the core issue lest we forget it.
Ref: Labour File, Vol.8-No.1&3, In Defense of the Rights of Domestic Workers (Cover Story – Anecdotes from the Life of Domestic Workers in Delhi and In Defense of Sumari`s Rights – pp 6 – 12). http://www.labourfile.org/recentarticle.aspx?type=2