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.

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