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PUNITA TANEJA: This is Kavita.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: Punita Taneja has a staff of four domestic workers, all living in quarters behind her large New Delhi home. She also has a gardener and a night watchman.

TANEJA: They have specific tasks which have been allocated to them, and specific times also.

DE SAM LAZARO: The workers, migrants from impoverished regions of India, told us they were grateful for a safe home, food, and a compassionate employer, a Delhi socialite who owns a software firm with her husband.

India's-Domestic-Workers-post01DOMESTIC WORKER: I am from Calcutta and came here because my husband was not earning much, and things were very tough. I don’t even have an education.

DOMESTIC WORKER: Madam has trained me, and now I know how to cook.

DE SAM LAZARO: It might seem like an Indian Downton Abbey, the epic TV series of benevolent rich employer and household staff. But in India you don’t need to be rich. Nearly everyone, from the lowest rungs of the middle class on up, employs domestics, often in virtual slavery.

India has strong trade unions. It has laws that protect the rights of workers. But domestic work isn’t covered by them. In fact, in all but a few places employers aren’t required to pay their domestic workers the legal minimum wage.

One of the Indian capital’s best known lobbyists for domestic workers is a Belgian nun. Jeanne Devos founded the National Domestic Workers Movement 34 years ago. It tries to organize among this vast informal workforce, by some estimates as high as 40 million mostly women. Many were trafficked into the work as children.

SISTER JEANNE DEVOS (Founder, National Domestic Workers Movement): That’s a whole network of money, racket—it’s amazing. It’s one of the biggest incomes for most people. Just go to the villages, get them poor children, sell them back in the city.

LEEZA JOSEPH: Domestic workers are very invisible. They are not recognized as workers.

DE SAM LAZARO: Leeza Joseph heads the movement’s Delhi office.

India's-Domestic-Workers-post02NISHA RAO: Everyone here is a domestic worker.

DE SAM LAZARO: In this Delhi slum we met Nisha Rao. She’s 35, and already she’s worked a quarter-century as a domestic—hardly an exception.

RAO: This grandma, she’s is the oldest one in the neighborhood. Even at her age she still works in two homes, doesn’t even get a day off in a month. This is a young girl...

DE SAM LAZARO: Radhika is 12 and still in school, a sixth grader. But every weekday after school and on weekends she works in a home caring for a six-year-old child.

(to Nisha Rao): How much does she get paid?

RAO: Five hundred rupees.

DE SAM LAZARO: That’s about nine dollars a month. Most domestic workers start very young forced by dire family finances or circumstances. Nisha Rao was orphaned at 10.

RAO: I wanted to go to school but that was not an option. With no education, domestic work was the only option. My aunt found me a family.

JOSEPH (speaking to domestic workers at unionizing meeting): We’re always divided by caste, but we are all equal.

DE SAM LAZARO: Although discrimination based on caste is illegal, Joseph says domestic workers, most from lowers castes, still suffer from age-old prejudices.

JOSEPH (speaking to domestic workers at unionizing meeting): You don’t get respect. You have to eat off separate plates, drink from separate glasses.

India's-Domestic-Workers-post03DE SAM LAZARO: She says the largest societal indifference was evident in the diplomatic row that followed the arrest in New York last December of an Indian diplomat.

Indian television news coverage: “Officials are angry, not just at Khobragade’s arrest…”

DE SAM LAZARO: Devyani Khobragade was charged with visa fraud for failing to pay her domestic worker, also from India, the American minimum wage. In Delhi’s official circles, there was widespread condemnation of the diplomat’s treatment. It provoked tit-for-tat responses.

Indian television news coverage: “Security barricades being removed from the US embassy in Delhi…”

DE SAM LAZARO: In spite of wall-to-wall coverage of the incident in India, Leeza Joseph says the charges against the diplomat got, at best, dismissive mention.

JOSEPH: It was like why the US government is making a big issue about just not paying to a domestic worker? Because in India many do not pay, so for Indians it was not a big issue.

DE SAM LAZARO: How well a minimum wage of any law could be enforced is a big question. Devos’s group did manage to get domestics included in a bill that protects workers from sexual harassment. But there was strong resistance at first, she says.

DEVOS: The rationale of the ministry of women and children was clearly the home is a home and no workplace. Finally, we came to know from people in the ministry that it was because it’s the biggest group behind closed doors, and we won’t be able to handle it.

DE SAM LAZARO: The enforcement would be too difficult?

SISTER JEANNE DEVOS: Too difficult.

India's-Domestic-Workers-post04DE SAM LAZARO: But slowly, she says, things are beginning to change, especially in the rapidly modernizing big cities.

SR. JEANNE DEVOS: For instance, now in cities like Bombay, and you will have the same in Delhi, we have areas where there is such a demand for domestic workers, where people pay double the minimum wage. If there is a shortage of that particular group of workers, the salaries go up.

DE SAM LAZARO: And for some, it’s a business opportunity. This company, named B-ABLE (Basix Academy for Building Lifelong Employability), was started two years ago by a California native whose spouse was a British diplomat in Delhi.

SHAWN RUNUACRES (B-ABLE): It was a very pure business model, helping workers find people and helping people find workers, then helping them to skill up. It’s helping them to join the organized world rather than keeping them in the darkness.

DE SAM LAZARO: The company vets and places workers. Employers also send their domestics to be trained. Cooking is particularly popular. Instructors themselves are former domestic workers; most worked in Delhi’s coveted diplomatic corps.

LALITA SUBRAMANI (B-ABLE Trainer): Since I’ve been working as a domestic worker for the Canadians it did help me develop my interpersonal skills, like conversation skill and how to deal with people. It definitely helped.

DE SAM LAZARO: Among workers applying there’s still a strong preference to work in foreign households.

ASHA KUMAR (B-ABLE Trainer): Maybe because they have to do this work themselves in their own countries they respect this work. They don’t look at the girl who comes into their home as a slave or servant. But in the past three years I have been placing people in Indian households. Things are changing—slowly, but they are changing.

DE SAM LAZARO: Punita Taneja is a client who likes to think herself part of the shifting social mindset.

TANEJA: The biggest mass that we have is the uneducated mass which comes from the villages, and they are also seeking to improve their own future. So I feel if we who have been blessed with all this start reaching out, somewhere we will start making a difference.

DE SAM LAZARO: But she admits it’s a small start to formalize a mostly underground industry that thrives on an abundant supply of impoverished women. For now, activists must count their victories one at a time—and perhaps in a generation.

RAO: From morning to night, everything I do is for my daughter, because all of the problems I’ve had in my life have been because I didn’t have an education. I want my daughter to study.

DE SAM LAZARO: For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in New Delhi.

India’s Domestic Workers

Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from New Delhi on the tens of millions of unprotected, underpaid, and largely invisible domestics, many of whom were trafficked into the work as children. He also talks with Sister Jeanne Devos, a Belgian nun who founded the National Domestic Workers Movement to represent them.

  • coldfrog

    Interesting broadcast this morning on TV – about domestic workers in India. The focus seemed to be more on the wages paid and ‘slavery’. I guess that is what makes headlines.

    I have seen a number of homeowners in India support the families of the domestic workers, take care of health needs of their parents and children, and give time off weekly, annual vacations and going back to their villages to spend auspicious occasions with their families. Domestic help have their own rooms in the household and are given food, clothing and care.

    Yes, my children & me did notice that when domestic help was accompanying the hiring families to a restaurant, they were seated separately. In one case when we were touring India by automobile, we invited our driver to sit with us on a table at a restaurant where we stopped to eat – and asked him to order from the menu. He was very uneasy doing this, and almost felt embarrassed sitting with us and obviously was not comfortable being asked to order whatever he wanted off the menu. The waiter at the restaurant also felt uneasy, since it was ‘unusual’ behavior. I believe that although it might take some time to have domestic help sit at the dinner table with the homeowner – respect, caring and humane treatment are more prevalent than the video clip denotes. The urban homeowners need the domestic help, just as the domestic help and their families need the urban jobs.

    There may be cases of abuse in some cases, just like there are bad apples anywhere worldwide. The abuse needs to be addressed. Trying to paint everyone with the same brush is not taking the overall culture and Indian ecosystem into consideration.

  • piyu2cool

    This article paints a biased view of Indian society and it’s domestic workers. In India these domestic workers are treated as family and treated well. Sometimes their health and education cost is paid for by the host family. They work longer hours but it’s true because there is no alternative employment for them. If these workers are not employed by households they will have to do much more labor intensive or dangerous construction jobs. This is all due to a large scale unemployment and population problem. Labour has become very cheap and human dignity of labour is lost. It is true that some people still believe in caste system but the caste based violence and abuse is largely checked by law in urban areas. In fact there is a scarcity of good domestic workers and hence they generally get very good salaries and working conditions compared to what they will earn in other labor sectors. I have seen families having their meals side by side with their domestic helps in the same table. That’s because India never had institutionalized slavery like America. Indian society is based on the pRinciple of live and let live.

    Also 500 rupees may not be that great in dollar terms but in Indian terms it is a good salary. Indian system is very different than American system and India’s minimum wage laws are different. Also one US dollar equals 50 Indian rupees. Americans should stop looking at the world from American prism. There are other less fortunate people in the world and due to scarcity of resources they have to live through hardships.

  • Melanie

    It is disturbing to me to think that the domestic workers in India still experience discrimination based on their caste. I understand the differences in culture, and that many of the domestic workers do so to make a living for themselves. However, I feel that they should be treated with utmost respect for the work they do. Instead, they are paid very little, and sometimes are paid nothing at all for their time and labor. Something should be done to bring more awareness and change for this group of women.