In her extraordinary novel The Help, Katherine Stockett writes about the lives of black women domestic workers in a small town in Mississippi in 1962. At the time in which the novel is set, the civil rights movement was yet to alter the unequal social relations between races in this small, conservative settlement. Stockett observantly recreates the segregation, distrust and disrespect which African American women workers routinely endured while working in middle-class white households. In the novel, three women lead a secret rebellion by anonymously writing about their experiences with their employers.

What deeply troubled me after I read the book was that the humiliation and exploitation suffered by domestic workers in southern US half a century earlier was, in fact, in many ways less oppressive than the daily lived experience of an estimated three million domestic workers in middle-class homes across urban India in the second decade of the twenty-first century. And that this causes us so little outrage.

Behind the walls of Indian middle-class ­– and even many lower-middle-class – houses, unequal India is constantly produced and reproduced in the way employers treat their domestic help.

This is where children of relative privilege learn early to accept and normalize inequality, lessons they learn for life. When a small boy of four is asked to touch the feet of all his elders, how does he know so early that he is expected to touch the feet of all older people – except the domestic help? How does he learn that domestic workers are the only elders he can command, call by their first names, and speak rudely to without being corrected?

In the American novel, one African American help raises seventeen white children in her lifetime of employment. She has to sacrifice the care-time she wanted for her own son so that she can earn the money to tend to him. As long as they are babies, many white children love her more than their own mothers. Her heartbreak comes when they grow up, and treat her with the same casual disrespect and condescension, and acquire the same prejudices, as their mothers. How many of us urban, Indian, middle-class adults have been similarly raised by women who neglected their own children, women we have forgotten as we grow and they age?

In The Help, the ‘rebellion by writing’ of domestic workers in Mississippi is spurred by the decision of some employers to build segregated toilets for their helps, which they find insulting. But in middle-class Indian homes this is routine. A study in Delhi conducted by Jagori, an organization working primarily with women, found that in 30 per cent of the homes surveyed, part-time domestic workers had no access to toilets at all, and of those who did, used segregated toilets in 40 per cent of the homes.

In The Help, domestic workers ate at dining tables but at different times from their employers. But in Indian homes, there are often separate plates for the help to eat from, and they almost never eat at the same table as their employers. They are usually made to sit on the floor for their meals. They are not given the same food as the employers, but rationed quantities of coarser, cheap food, or leftovers.

The domestic help as portrayed in the book, in the 1960s, were modestly paid and worked eight hours with weekly off-days. Studies confirm that live-in Indian domestic workers today toil almost every waking hour, often seven days a week.

An official study estimated in 2004 that there were around 4.75 million domestic workers in the country.

Since domestic workers are mostly unregistered and are an invisible workforce, the actual numbers may be much higher. For instance, the study estimated that households in Delhi and Mumbai employ six hundred thousand domestic workers respectively, but activists place the numbers at one million in each city. There are three categories of domestic workers: residential workers who work 24x7, many of who are recruited through placement agencies; full-day workers who work from morning to evening for nine hours or more; and part-time workers who carry out specific tasks in more than one household and are normally recruited directly from and reside in slum areas.

Additional tasks range from washing and ironing clothes, walking the dog, cleaning cars, mopping floors and toilets, and many others. Wages paid to domestic workers tend to be very low and are arbitrarily fixed well below statutory minimum wages and paid in recompense for much longer hours than prescribed. They spend many hours, often without breaks, sweeping and swabbing floors, washing clothes, cooking and taking care of the aged and children.

Part-time helps are paid so little that they work in multiple houses, which adds up to inordinately long working hours.

Both full- and part-time helps have few, if any, paid holidays. They are protected by no labour law regulation and no social security contributions. Salaries are cut if they damage property, some workers report being denied their earnings by deceitful calculations, and they are often accused of stealing. Their work of sweeping, cleaning and cooking entail numerous health hazards, compounded by poor and irregular food and little rest and recreation. Aged domestic help are routinely dismissed from service to fend for themselves, with no question of any pension.

Left feminist economist Jayati Ghosh maintains that, ‘Inequality is the cause of lower wages for domestic workers in India. Inequality in India permits lower wages for domestic work.’ She observes that despite the huge contribution made by domestic workers in society, they remain largely invisible and undervalued, which reflects the low value India places on social reproduction. She affirms that domestic workers should have equal rights for reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least twenty-four consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payment, as well as clear information on the terms and conditions of employment.

It is extraordinary that such a large and vulnerable workforce still lacks a specific protective legislative framework.

The majority are women – often children – and migrants, which anyway renders them especially vulnerable. Compounding this problem is the fact that workplaces are hidden away within people’s homes. As Ghosh observed, the greater part of the work performed by household help is underrated as work because, in most homes, it is considered unpaid and unacknowledged ‘women’s work’.

Since most middle-class enforcers of legal protections for domestic workers would themselves be employers – often on very similar exploitative terms – of domestic workers, there is built-in bias against domestic workers in enforcement.

In the high-profile run-in of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade with her domestic help, Sangeeta Richards, which made international headlines for many weeks during 2013 and even strained Indo-US diplomatic relations, it is remarkable how unanimous public sympathy—in the media, the diplomatic services, the bureaucracy and even across political parties—was for the employer rather than her domestic help. Few were concerned with Richards’s side of the story.

The dependence of urban middle-class households on domestic workers has grown further because of the entry of much larger numbers of educated women into the formal workforce. They depend critically on domestic carers to enable them to work and earn yet, as Sujata Ghotoskar again observes, contributions made by women domestic workers to the economy are grossly underrated, partly because domestic care-giving work by women is both devalued and taken for granted. The growing economic dependence on them has increased their bargaining power a little, but this is limited because they are mostly unorganized. Domestic help assert their power today mainly by changing employers more freely than they did in the past, and addressing their employers not as sahib and memsahib, but as uncle and aunty.

Middle-class India’s greatest shame is its employment of underage children as domestic workers.

This is an invisible and powerless category of workers and, therefore, there are no reliable estimates of child domestic workers. The official study conducted by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) estimates that 20 per cent of all domestic workers are under fourteen years of age. That is a shocking one in five. A quarter of all workers are between the ages of fifteen and twenty years. If you total both these figures, this means that an unconscionable two to three out of every five domestic workers are toiling for wages in homes when they should be studying and playing in schools and colleges.

Excerpted with permission from Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India, Harsh Mander, Speaking Tiger.