Tag Archive for domestic workers rights

Bookmybai advert raises concerns over awful working conditions of domestic helpers

domestic- workers- india

Pinjra Tod, an autonomous group that works to ensure affordable and non gender-discriminatory accommodation for women students in Delhi gives a fitting reply to a sexist advertisement that commodifies and dehumanizes domestic workers in the country

By Pinjra Tod
This Diwali, we were hit with the promise that women were to be finally liberated from the shackles of housework and that they would never ‘need to enter the kitchen again’. Years of patriarchal oppression that caged women to house work would now be miraculously over through a savy ‘master’stroke accomplished in a few minutes: the ‘maid’ that a husband (mind you!) needed to ‘gift’ to his beloved wife (instead of ‘useless diamonds’) through the newly launched online service of bookmybai.com.

This advert has left us fuming in rage, not only with its sexist, misogynist, casteist and classist constructions, but also by the twisted manner in which it seeks to co-opt/appropriate the feminist dream and discourse of women’s emancipation from the slavery and monotony of domestic work. How does bookmybai.com construct the breaking of the cage of domesticity for women? Who are these women who would never need to enter the kitchen again? Who are the women whose labour would make this possible?

While middle class women are promised “trusted”, “safe,reliable & easy”, “background verified” and “hassle-free replacement” of maids to achieve their freedom from the kitchen, the intensely precarious conditions of work (extremely low wages, indefinite hours of tremendous hard work, no job security, no medical or holiday pay, blatant practices of untouchability and sexual harassment by employers etc.) that characterise the lives of women involved in the domestic and care work industry are completely invisibilised.

While emergence of domestic work as a “saleable” commodity has directed attention towards the labour of women within the house earlier invisiblized under labels of ‘love’ and ‘affection’, the bad working conditions and market value of that work also reflects the little social, “productive” value that is attached to that work, and other work historically associated with women.

It is also interesting to note at this point that despite the idea of women’s economic independence gaining currency across larger sections of society and notably among the middle and lower middle class, the actual share of women in the urban working population remains ridiculously small, out of which the largest growing sector is one of the lowest in the world (15%). What this implies is that the largest growing section in which women seeking economic independence find jobs is the low-paid and highly exploitative sector of domestic work and others like it. This in turn also reflects on how all women and “women’s work” is perceived and valued in society, touching on women of all backgrounds, even the one shown beaming in this advert!

Middle class homes constitute some of the most brutal prisons for domestic workers, who are often literally caged inside houses and their physical mobility is severely restricted

domestic maid adMany of us have grown up in our families complicit in these practices of exploitation — the pittance wage paid, the separate utensils, the different seating and sleeping areas, the daily abuse, the regulations, the harsh regimes of work and surveillance: the lists are endless. Many of us who live in university hostels know that over the last decade the women who perform the important tasks of cleaning and maintaining the hostel premises are being increasingly thrown in more and more insecure conditions of work, where jobs which were earlier permanent positions under the university administration, are now operating under sub-contracted and casual contracts. Bookmybai slyly appropriates the language of women’s liberation from domesticity to essentially reinforce a hierarchical model of society, where the emancipation of middle class and upper-caste women is to be premised on the continued exploitation of working class and Dalit women.

It is the husband constructed as the primary ‘bread-winner’, who is to ‘gift’ the ‘maid’, the husband/man is not even imagined as needing to contribute to housework. To add to it all, the website contains filters for ‘religion’ and ‘region’, legitimising the discrimination and exclusion that is already practised in society in an employment portal

There is absolutely no challenge to the sexual division of labour, which confines women to the burden of reproductive work.

The CEO justifies this by saying that this is information that customers want. Can we imagine a website in the US that profiles ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘maids’? What does the buying and selling of humans remind you of? Feudalism? Slavery? The CEO unapologetically claimed that this sexist and casteist advert was supposed to be ‘funny’.

In the horrific gesture of commodifying and dehumanising the domestic worker and her labour into a ‘gift’ to be traded and exchanged in the market, this ad inadvertently lays bare the oppression and alienation that marks the lives and experiences of domestic workers. Bookmybai.com is however not an isolated case, but a new and more ‘organised’/'formal’ avatar whose outrageous articulations brings out very starkly the issues and questions that characterise the domestic work industry in general. The struggle for higher wages and unionisation that is being waged by domestic workers across the globe hence becomes very significant in such a dystopic context.

Women’s liberation from the cages of domesticity will only truly be possible when we build and create institutional and collective forms of sharing and engaging in reproductive labour and care work that dismantles the sexual division of labour, and where the liberation of one section of women is not contingent on the exploitation of another section.

Devyani Khobragade Case: Defense strategy deviates from core issue of labour rights


The Domestic Workers’ Forum, India and New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) argue that the recent defense strategy of Devyani Khobgrade – that of the visa application being misread – does not take away the criminal charges against her and demands that the Indian Government respect and recognise the rights of domestic workers both at home and abroad

Feministsindia is publishing the full text of the statement here:

In the most recent turn of events, Devyani Khobragade’s attorney Daniel Arshack has argued that there has been a major error with regard to reading the visa application documents, and that Ms. Khobragade’s salary of $4500 has been mistakenly understood to be that of her domestic worker Sangeeta Richard.

Arshack has claimed that in visa application form for Sangeeta (DS-160), $4500 may be the figure mentioned in the box asking for salary of the employer (in this case Ms. Khobragade). This may have been mistakenly read as the intended salary of the domestic worker.

As recent news reports indicate, this claim has also been supported by a screenshot of the visa application form, indicating that Preet Bharara’s office may have misread the visa form.

In this statement, we investigate the implications of this latest development for the deeper underlying charges laid down in the official complaint against Ms. Khobragade, and if there was a misreading, whether that constitutes valid ground for the charges to be dropped.

According to a news report, “Khobragade is said to have helped Sangeeta fill up DS-160 around October 15, 2012. On November 11 the same year, the diplomat and her maid signed the state department mandated employment contract, which guaranteed Sangeeta an hourly wage of $9.75, indicating certain benefits and stating that impermissible deductions would not be made. It projected an average of 40 working hours per week (approximately a salary of $1560 per month) and stipulated off days and other details, all as required by the US state department for receiving the A-3 visa”.

The news report further states that Sangeeta is later said to have asked for a second employment contract, requesting that her basic salary of Rs. 30,000 be transferred to her husband’s account in Delhi, as he was unemployed. A separate employment contract was, thus, signed between Ms. Khobragade and Ms. Richard on November 23, 2012, guaranteeing this.

The report further notes, “According to government sources, Khobragade fulfilled all her commitments in the form of $560 (or Rs 30,000 transferred to Sangeeta’s bank account in India every month), another $375 as deducted from the salary to pay for her chargeable utilities like telephone usage, cable TV, non-work related conveyance, expenses and another $625 given in cash, occasionally with signed receipts. As there were several months where the weekly hours fell well below 40 working hours, the cash payment was apparently adjusted accordingly”.

We argue that this claim takes attention away from the core charges against Ms. Khobragade, as per the text of the original complaint against her. We must not forget that as per the original complaint against her, she is accused of lying on the visa form about payments to her domestic worker, and drawing up a second unlawful contract. Those charges cannot be brushed away irrespective of whether $4500 was mistakenly read as the intended salary of the maid.

Criminal charges against Ms. Khobragade
The criminal charges against Ms. Khobragade allege she lied on official documents submitted to obtain an A-3 visa for her domestic help and never intended to comply with the terms of the employment contract set therein. Ms. Khobragade is known to have obtained an A-3 visa for her domestic help, for which she submitted an employment contract that listed her hourly wage as $9.75, as per the prevailing wage. She is accused of later signing a second unlawful contract, which was concealed from the U.S. authorities, and which attempted to revoke rights guaranteed by the first contract and by U.S. law. The second contract did not list fair hours or working conditions/duties, and held that Ms.Richard would be paid a maximum of 30,000 rupees per month (about $3.31/hour) – an expected monthly salary of Rs. 25,000 per month, and an additional Rs. 5,000 for overtime. Ms. Richard has alleged that she was instructed not to mention anything about the second contract in her visa interview, and maintain that she would be paid the hourly wage of $9.75, and that she would work 40 hours per week.

The charges that led to her arrest are based on the differences in the two contracts, the second of which fell way below U.S minimum wage regulations, and are also driven by Ms. Khobragade’s alleged treatment of Ms. Richard. Ms. Khobragade has been accused of making Ms. Richard work for more than 40 hours a week, from morning until late at night, seven days week, amounting to a wage of less than $3 an hour.

Sangeeta worked very long hours
Ms. Richard’s lawyer, Dana Sussman, a staff attorney at Safe Horizon, a New York based non-profit working with victims of trafficking, has argued that “she essentially worked very long hours, was isolated within the home, and attempted to ask for more time off, ask for more reasonable hours, but those attempts to resolve the issues were unsuccessful.” In a petition to the Delhi High court filed in July 2013, Phillip Richard, Sangeeta’s husband alleged, “Even though the contract stipulated that Sunday would be an off-day she worked from 6 am to 11 pm, minus 2 hours for church even on Sunday. She worked from 6 am to 11 pm on Saturday as well.” He has argued that “the treatment of Sangeeta by Devyani Khobragade is tantamount to keeping a person in slavery-like conditions or keeping a person in bondage”.

The family has further alleged that Ms. Khobragade confiscated Ms. Richard’s passport upon her arrival in the U.S, and turned down her requests to be sent back to India, indicating a coercive situation for the domestic worker. Ms. Richard, who worked with Ms. Khobragade from around November 2012 to June 2013, left the house after her requests were turned down, as she could no longer stand the miserable working conditions. It is claimed that she left with clothes on her back, and very little money, and lived off help from the Indian American community, through whom she eventually connected with Safe Horizon. In addition to the charges of non-payment of minimum wages and disregard for fair working hours, the ones that have surfaced with regard to confiscation of passport, turning down Ms. Richard’s requests to be sent back to India, and retaliation and threats by Ms. Khobragade to Ms. Richard and her family in India indicate a coercive labour situation, and collectively rise to the level of labour trafficking.

Driving attention away from core charges
By zeroing down upon the figure of $4500 as a misinterpretation, Ms. Khobragade’s attorney is seeking to divert attention from the underlying charges against her, which are based on the fact that there was a ‘second’ unlawful contract, indicating that Ms. Khobragade never intended to pay her domestic worker as per U.S laws. Further, the claim that her salary amount was adjusted partly by payments to her family in India, and partly adjusted towards her living expenses and chargeable utilities in the U.S, is once again violative of U.S laws. For, a careful reading of the text of the complaint against Ms. Khobragade, which is also clearly referenced against the required terms of an employment contract under an A-3 visa, indicates that, “The contract must state that after the first 90 days of employment, all wage payments must be made by check or by electronic transfer to the domestic worker’s bank account. Neither Mission members nor their family members should have access to domestic workers’ bank accounts… Further, the bank account must be in the United States so that domestic workers may readily access and utilize their wages.”

All this once again draws attention to the case that Ms. Khobragade clearly misrepresented the terms of the employment contract, and that this misrepresentation goes way beyond the figure of $4500. It lies in the forging of a second employment contract that was violative of U.S laws, in Ms. Khobragade’s treatment of Ms. Richard, and in the manner of transaction of payments, which are compounded by the allegations of threat and coercion.

This case, and the subsequent reactions to it, once again highlights the need for greater protections for domestic workers across the world and the role of their home countries and the countries where they work.

In the shadow of a groundbreaking international covenant on domestic worker rights at the International Labor Organization, it is unfortunate that domestic workers like Sangeeta continue to face extreme exploitation and retaliation from employers. And when they work for consular officials and diplomats, too often their home countries actually act to defend the rights of their abusers.

We urge the Indian Government to reverse its course and take a human rights position going forward. Specifically, we demand that the Indian government:

1) Stop blocking the prosecution of Ms. Khobragade and waive any applicable immunity so that the case against Ms. Khobragade can move forward in the U.S. courts;

2) Respect and recognise the rights of domestic workers at home and abroad;

3) Enact a Comprehensive National Level Legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers

4) Ratify ILO Convention 189 -Domestic Workers Convention 2011

Statement prepared by: New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) and Domestic Workers’ Forum – India, (NDWFI)

Featured Photo: Domestic workers protest outside the Indian consulate in New York