Zohra Bibi’s plight reverberates in Chennai – Domestic Workers express their solidarity

Comrade Latha, a domestic worker from Perungudi, is appalled at the photo of Zohra Bibi being forcefully carried away by police and private guards from Mahagun Moderne building complex in Noida where she was working as a domestic worker. ‘Was she just a garbage to be dumped out?’ she asked. She was one of the 45 domestic workers who assembled in Chennai to show solidarity with Zohra Bibi in a spontaneous protest on 22nd July 2017. On the one hand, middle-class citizenry vilifies Zohra Bibi to justify their own violent actions while on the other, a collective conscience that is appalled at the glaring inequalities that have emerged in the process of nation building by the Hindu-right wing forces, grows. In the midst of this. Domestic workers are discussing and strategising for they realise that this is an attack on the working class and needs a united resistance/fight.

political cartoon

Domestic workers as the ‘magic’ behind work getting done.

Police and politicians show their support for everyone except Zohra Bibi and other workers

Noida’s Mahagun Moderne building complex remains the centre of a raging class conflict more than a week after the confinement of a domestic worker that made national headlines. Zohra Bibi was allegedly held captive for a night after demanding her unpaid salary. Her husband frantically looked everywhere and when she was finally brought out the next morning, weak and dazed, workers grew furious and the situation became tense.

Mahesh Sharma, the BJP MP from Noida, was quick to assure residents that he was on ‘their side’. In a meeting at the building complex, Scroll.in quotes the MP saying, to applause, “There is no doubt that the [Sethi] family is not at fault…It is clear that a group of people got together with the intent to injure and kill and they should be booked under those sections and under the Goonda Act. I assure you that they will not get bail for years to come. We will fight the case on behalf of the family.” He blamed the media and ‘human rights activists’ for turning it into a ‘communal’ issue.

The police on the other hand have been rounding up men from all the settlements within a two kilometre radius of the building complex. They’ve arrested 13 men who have been charged with attempt to murder, despite no resident complaining of physical harm. When questioned by the Caravan, Arun Kumar Singh, the Noida SP, refused to answer the question saying “if the offence was not made out, then they would get acquitted”. The family members and the community are scrambling for bail with the help of unions and other groups.

The Sethi family has only been charged with “voluntarily causing hurt and wrongful confinement, the maximum punishment for both of which is an imprisonment of one year or a fine of Rs 1,000, or both”, according to the Caravan. “CCTV footage shows that the maid servant [Zohra Bibi] ran away from the employer’s apartment and she could be seen running from one lobby to the other. So the captive theory no longer applies,” Singh told Scroll.in.

The Sethi family has not been called in for questioning and whether any real investigation will happen is unclear. But the family has not found it hard to share their side of the story. “I feel that we do not have any human rights. We are the poor ones,” said Ms. Sethi to the New York Times. “We worship them [the maids], because they are such an important part of our lives…Hindus believe that if you are eating something and someone with an empty stomach is watching you eat, you cannot digest this food. We first feed them and then eat. I would give her tea before making her do her chores… They hate us for the money, they wonder: ‘Why are they so well off, so rich? Why do they have everything?’ They envy us, and this is how it comes out.”

Meanwhile, the Noida authority has acted with exceptional speed to raze “over three dozen shanties in the area where most of the agitators lived” according to The Hindu. Along with the shanties, makeshift shops that catered to residents from both the shanties and the building complex were destroyed. The sudden action left workers stranded in the rain with no roof over their heads. Those who ran the shops have lost their livelihoods.


A spirited protest in Chennai showing solidarity

Domestic workers from various parts of the city including Ambattur, Choolaimedu, Perungudi decided to show their solidarity, after PTS (Penn Thozhilalar Sangam) shared the story of Zohra Bibi through various photos that had emerged during this ordeal. Comrade Sujatha Mody of PTS said that the domestic workers were extremely shocked on seeing these pictures and came together for a short but spirited protest in Choolaimedu on 22nd July.

Speaking about their participation in the protest, Comrade Latha asked if the rich can get away with anything just because they are rich and we are poor and have to seek work from them. She asked why women workers should be criminalized just for asking for their due wages and what does it mean when women do not have safety and dignified work environment at work place. Echoing the same words, Comrade Sujata said that the attitude of the residents of ‘Mahagun’ was Maha Mosam(very bad in tamil). She said that Government of India continues to deny dignified status to domestic workers by refusing to ratify ILO convention on recognizing domestic workers. The attitude of the bureaucracy is that ‘home’ is a private space and that treating home as a workplace is a western concept and culture, and that one cannot send investigators home to enforce laws.

Another unverified information that was floated by the state machinery was that the worker was from Bangladesh. Comrade Latha was emphatic on her opposition to denial of rights to a worker based on nationality. She said that workers are entitled to decent protection wherever they are from. Comrade Sujata highlighted that the residents demanded Aadhar card as proof of residence from the workers which was highly problematic. She said that even if the workers were from other countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, they should be given proper documentation for them to legally work and be entitled to legal protection and decent wages. Comrade Sujata said that workers here were able to relate to the issue because of the high migration from Tamil Nadu to other states and countries such as Dubai. She also asked whether the Mahagun residents were themselves not migrants and how a certain idea is being constructed around who is a migrant to exploit and oppress.


Comrade Latha recounted an incident to illustrate that the ‘theft’ angle imposed on workers was used to immediately criminalize domestic workers irrespective of whether such charges are proven. She said that when a domestic worker was accused of ‘theft’ of jewellery in a household, the police immediately arrested the worker and harrassed her. The community along with local ward councilor immediately collectivised and demanded that the worker be released. Later it turned out that one of the family members had stolen the jewelry. Comrade Sujatha added that even if a worker has committed theft, she or he cannot be criminalized and is entitled to due process. PTS as an organization is committed to helping domestic workers fight their case in such conditions, said Sujata.

The protest was held without seeking police permission. While the police initially tried to contain the protest, eventually they let the women continue their protest, as long as they did not disrupt the traffic. PTS is planning to mobilise central and independent trade unions to continue to press these issues through various campaigns. They also plan to petition Government of India, UP and Delhi to regulate working conditions for domestic workers.


Updates from Noida to aid workers

Unions and civil society groups are trying to talk to the workers and community who are facing relentless assault from the police and the residents. According to union activists, the region is inaccessible due to heavy police presence. Police forcers are making arbitrary rounds in the workers’ colony basti which is still intact.

The residents of the apartment complex has been able to identify close to 100 male and female workers, who were protesting at the gate. They have been blacklisted from entering the complex, sources say. Those who have been allowed to work inside continue to feel the hostile environment, according to the activists. Zohra Bibi and her family have left the basti to avoid further escalation of conflicts.

Out of 60 men who were arrested, 13 are still behind bars and a lawyers network is trying to support them for bail applications. According to a labour activist, these men were picked up on random charges of attempt to murder, without any evidence at all to allow for such a case.


A wake up call to working class?

The fascism of Indian Government dovetails with the hindu upper caste hegemonic view of the Mahagun residents on the cultural expression of home and their relation to domestic worker. While continuing to deny her dignity, safe working conditions and a decent wage, it is unmistakably the worst expression of oppression on worker. In the case of Mahagun, these contradictions are aligning quite sharply as an antagonism between an upper class – hindu – upper caste employer against a muslim – migrant – woman worker.

As a class, we must scrutinize the role of security guards who are increasingly acting as the henchmen subscribing to these views, espousing a subservience which is actively aiding or working against their class interests. An activist had said on the role of the security guards, ‘ Even before that, security guards at Mahagun Moderne fired three rounds in the air in response to unarmed workers who were merely demanding the release of their neighbour….Zohra’s husband went to his neighbours after having waited an entire day, approaching the police and the apartment security personnel. The same guards, who had earlier assured him that she was not inside, brought her out as the protest gathered strength.’ This is a challenge confronting the union movement which needs active engagement and strategizing.

The protest from Chennai exemplifies that the domestic workers as a class are seriously thinking about this issue and the implications of these on their safety, security. We quote again from the activist, ‘the minimum that a domestic worker must have, to ensure her safe return from a visit demanding her pending wages, is to have a hundred other fellow workers pelting stones at the gates of her employer. Abuse, violence and unregulated exploitation is rampant in the domestic work sector, which is a primary sector witnessing increasing women’s employment in the country’.


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