Sunday, May 13, 2012

Aamir, listen in

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 13, 2012

Business as usual... Photo: N. Sridharan
Photo: N. Sridharan

Everyone is talking about Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate programme. The criticism is muted and much of it predictable. Most viewers have been impressed by it. The first episode was suitably engaging and shocking. It focussed on sex-selective abortion (a more precise and correct term rather than the more commonly-used ‘female foeticide') and the consequences of the declining sex ratio. Even the cynics must agree that every attempt to make a dent in the entrenched mindset in this country, where educated people think nothing of making women go through multiple abortions simply because they believe they must have a son, is welcome.

The actor has probably got all his episodes in place. But here is a subject that he should consider, one that requires the same kind of puncturing of middle-class attitudes that he did quite effectively in his maiden episode. Predictably, people interviewed said only the poor, illiterate and rural people resort to practices like sex-selection. Khan established with effective and simple graphics that the exact opposite was the case. I also liked the simple and clear way he stated that it is the male that determines the sex of the foetus. It's frightening how many people refuse to accept this as a fact.

Helping hands

The subject I suggest is a programme on domestic help. All of us have people “working” for us. Yet, we do not grant them the rights of workers. They are invisible, part of the furniture, taken for granted. With increasing urbanisation, and women stepping out of the home for jobs, the middle class is ever more dependent on such help. Yet greater demand has not led to better conditions for these workers.
Despite articles in the media, some campaigns, and notable documentary films like “Laxmi and Me” by Nishtha Jain, we do not see a shift in attitudes towards domestics. Instead, we read stories of violence and abuse. So, Aamir Khan, how about something on the way we treat our domestic help?
The good news is that finally, after years of campaigning for some regulation governing domestic workers, the union cabinet has prepared a note based on a draft national policy on domestic work that was prepared by the Ministry of Labour in 2009. If the policy is accepted, domestic help will come under existing laws that govern all workers such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Trade Union Act, the Payment of Wages Act, Workmen's Compensation Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act and the Equal Remuneration Act.

Last year, Indian delegates at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) voted for employment standards for domestic workers. The government has extended the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the central health insurance scheme, to cover domestic workers and three members of their families.

In the policy, a domestic help is described as “a person who is employed for remuneration whether in cash or kind, in any household through any agency or directly, either on a temporary or permanent, part-time or full-time basis… but does not include any member of the family of an employer.”
What this means is that you cannot get away with paying your domestic help the pittance that most people do. As the National Floor Level for Minimum Wage is currently Rs.115 per day, a full-time domestic should be paid at least Rs.3,450 a month. She would be entitled to maternity leave, annual leave, sick leave and paid for overtime. The sexual harassment law has finally included domestic workers in its ambit. So she would be protected against sexual abuse and violence.

Syndrome of sorts

A policy like this comes not a day too soon. We shed tears about women who are forced to abort female foetuses or other victims of violence. But are we aware of the daily exploitation under our very noses? We refuse to accept that paying a woman less than the minimum wage, for work that is back-breaking and certainly something we don't want to do, is exploitative. Yet in this day and age, there is simply no justification for the “servant” syndrome to continue.

Of course, in India, rules and laws alone rarely bring about real change. It is the attitude of the people, those who employ domestics, that needs to undergo a revolutionary change. Just as in the case of sex selection, simply having a law, even with strong implementation, is not enough to make people think differently. One hopes that media interventions, like Aamir Khan's show, will begin to make a difference. At least, the issue will be discussed. It will be in the open. And those who continue with the old view will be exposed.

Similarly, domestic work needs to be talked about, the reality constantly exposed, the law implemented. The rules governing domestic work are particularly difficult to implement because contracts are individually negotiated, the exploitation takes place behind closed doors, inside people's homes. How can any government agency monitor this or insist on compliance? A change is only possible if the “employers”, people like you and me, accept that these invisible hands that make our lives so comfortable need respect, acknowledgement and above all a fair wage. 

(To read the original click here)


aditi said...

I watched the first episode of AK's SJ and was shocked like many others I have discussed with but you are right in saying that simply having a rule or law won't change things much, but it's definitely a step in the right directions. I hope that the way in which the facts and stories are presented in the programme encourages people to change the way they think. I am most shocked to see that people don't understand the consequences of such practices. i.e. if everyone has a son, where will the daughters come from to marry them??

As for the topic of domestic help, I am also in agreement with you. I know of many people who have domestic help and treat them as little more than slaves. It is disgusting that after so many years of the abolition of slavery worldwide, these kinds of habits are still being practiced. People DO need to change, they need to realise that they simply cannot "BUY" humans as is often the case with domestic help.

It's a real shame that it is often the well off, well educated people who are partaking in such practices but perhaps they are not so 'educated' after all...?

smadhusudhan said...

Just like we overlook the rights of the domestic help and don't care if they make at least minimum wage, we overlook the presence the child domestic help, we all know employing children is wrong and child labour is illegal. Yet we don't speak up when we see our friends, family or neighbors employing children as domestic helps. I think this should also be addressed in the program.