Opinion

Cheap domestic workers (even Bangladeshi) are fine. The problem is when they protest

We want the poorest to work in our homes at the lowest rates of pay and treat them as natural criminals.

Exploitative domestic labour provided by a hapless army of the economically and socially marginalised has been fundamental to the making of the Indian way of life. Indian fiction in English gushes about idyllic childhoods. Non-resident Indians reminisce about memories of home. And Karan Johar-ish cinema is populated by well-scrubbed people gamboling about their well-scrubbed homes in consumerist delight, with barely visible apparitions who clean up after them. Servitude is the spectre that haunts middle-class lives but our ghosts have been traditionally very silent. Till recently, that is. It is the din created by the ghostly providers of our comforts that lies behind the violence against them. It is not that we have suddenly become more callous.

The good citizens of Noida’s gated enclave Mahagun Moderne – where a domestic worker was allegedly held captive overnight by her former employers, leading to a riot-like situation on Wednesday – have cause to be concerned. For, a combination of factors is leading to the rise of ghosts who speak rather than just stay in the background. A great deal has been written about “labour market dynamism” as a result of economic liberalisation. As far as women are concerned, the most dynamic sector is that of domestic labour. Women working as domestic help, for low wages and under uncertain conditions, account for a very significant section of the female labour force in India. The women who every morning make their way to the boom gates of Mahagun Moderne and various other such enclaves to look after children, cook, and clean are participants in this dynamic labour market. But something has changed in the labour market and in the relationship between the receivers of these comforts and those whose historical duty it has been to provide them.

Fictitious kinship to contract

The first change concerns the decline of older forms of exploitation and their substitution with the new. The older form of exploitation centred around fictive kinship terminology, where domestic workers became uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and, sometimes, grandparents, whom the older middle classes frequently sourced through their village ties. And this fiction of kinship functioned easily enough in the feudal-modernity of the older middle classes. In their relationship with domestic labour, the newer middle classes subscribe to a different ethic – that of the market contract, unvarnished by the patina of noblesse oblige (which means that privilege comes with responsibility). The market-contract model for domestic labour is about minimal care while expecting maximum labour: no responsibility is to be taken for the worker’s sick child, infirm parent, personal injury or living conditions.

Security apparatus

Secondly, over the past few decades, there has emerged an entire industry based around middle-class security. It consists of private security agencies, a massive proliferation of close-circuit television cameras and a variety of other processes and instruments. The rise of the urban security complex has been accompanied by extraordinarily discriminative measures to register domestic labour with the police: we want the poorest to work in our homes at the lowest rates of pay and treat them as natural criminals, rather than victims of circumstance. The irony is that the violence that domestic labour is subjected to by employers is very rarely punished and the state security apparatus joins the private one in punishing the most vulnerable.

Security guards outside Mahagun Moderne in Noida's Sector 78 on Wednesday. (Credit: Sunil Ghosh / HT)
Security guards outside Mahagun Moderne in Noida's Sector 78 on Wednesday. (Credit: Sunil Ghosh / HT)

The new ordinary

Third, our urban spheres are now marked by the rise of an entirely new consciousness where the idea of the ordinary has shifted from the poor to the middle classes. It is the latter who are now imagined as the most harassed: they pay for electricity but the poor steal it, they pay taxes but get no infrastructure in return, and they bear the brunt of corruption. The ordinary people are represented through a variety of bodies, such as resident welfare associations and non-governmental organisations that agitate on their behalf, and processes, such as protests against increases in electricity tariffs. The rise of the new – hardworking, taxpaying, honest – ordinary translates into hardening attitudes towards the pretend-ordinary. The women who work in your homes are to be reported to the police, or subjected to some form of summary violence, should they be suspected of a misdemeanour because their actions affect the lives of the truly ordinary citizens.

Gates that create difference

Finally, there is the rise of gated residential enclaves. These have created ideas about insiders and outsiders of different kinds. Gated communities in India are not really as new as they are imagined to be. The newer residential enclaves were built upon older models and ideas, such as cantonment towns, industrial complexes and institutional spaces. In our larger cities, resident welfare associations started installing gates at the entrance of their localities, making gated enclaves out of formerly open spaces. In Delhi, for example, the process appears to have begun in the early 1980s and coincided with the entry of a large numbers of migrant labourers involved in construction activity for the 1982 Asian Games hosted by the city. Gates produce difference, and different kinds of outsiders now occupy the landscape of urban panic.

However, rather than look at the gated phenomena as one of the reasons for producing apprehension, we tend to see it as a solution against perceived threats from various quarters, such as rural migrants and “foreign” (Bangladeshi) elements. Actually, we are in the midst of gated nationalism where the ordinary resident is at war with his or her own poor citizenry as well as perceived foreign infiltrators. However, we do not mind cheap labour – irrespective of where it comes from – as long as it is provided without protest. It is the protesting labourer that is the problem. Her protests are seen as outrageous because it disturbs the peace of the ordinary. It hints at the fact that there is something extraordinary about the arrangements we have come to see as normal.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.