This guest post is an investigative report by MAYA JOHN, SUNITA TOPPO and MANJU MOCHHARY, who are associated with Gharelu Kamgar Union and actively involved in organizing domestic workers.
Recently, the otherwise docile workforce of domestic workers – most of whom are migrant labourers from the poorest states in the country – showed remarkable collective zeal against their wealthy employers in Noida (Uttar Pradesh). On the morning of 12th July 2017, a confrontation broke out between wealthy residents in a posh housing society, Mahagun Moderne in Noida Sector 78, and a gathering of agitated domestic workers and their families. The rampant exploitation of domestic workers, and the huge antagonism between their interests and those of their employers was directly exposed with the outbreak of this agitation.
The 12th July incident and subsequent developments have also revealed the sickening nexus between the police, employers, and right-wing politicians who have extended support to the wealthy residents. Within hours, an obvious labour issue, and the struggle of workers against the alleged illegal confinement of a female domestic worker was projected as a communal confrontation. With the accused employers and their sympathizers identifying the protesting workers and the missing domestic worker as ‘Bangladeshis’, the social media exploded with communal diatribe and messages of hate. Conditions for communal discord were consciously sown by Mahagun residents, putting at risk the lives of hundreds of workers living in neighbouring slums.
It is, indeed, perturbing to watch the regularity with which migrant workers are coming under attack from communal forces that have developed a widespread support base in our metropolitans. This has increasingly become possible, given the political climate today. It is a fact that the current political regime is nurturing hectic activity on the ground and in the realm of social media, which is geared towards steady polarization on lines of religious communities. Such polarization has resulted in Muslims being easily labelled as Pakistani, and their residential quarters being projected as ‘mini-Pakistan’. The Bengali Muslim, meanwhile, is being spontaneously conflated with a Bangladeshi. While religiosity can be seen as a cultural inheritance within the family structure, the sense of community boundary is collectively constructed and imposed. The sense of such boundary, of course, is being used in a highly instrumentalist manner. Functioning like a spontaneous ideology, the sense of community distinctions is quickly drawn upon in a multitude of circumstances – be it for a seat in a crowded railway compartment, for usurping property, for consolidating support in a local constituency, for branding a domestic worker, and so on and so forth.
Undoubtedly, to conceal the ill deeds of one of their kind, the Mahagun residents have also conveniently bracketed Bengali Muslim, and now all workers from Bengal’s districts of Maldah and Cooch Behar, as ‘Bangladeshis rioters’. Ironically, in the process of exercising their magic finger, ‘concerned’ citizens lapped up the derogatory and communally charged whatsapp and FB posts emerging from Mahagun Moderne. They proceeded to like, share and comment on the Mahagun posts in an equally communal vein; conveniently overlooking the essential fact that many of the Bengali domestic workers at the centre of the storm were Hindus. Indeed, of the many workers who have been blacklisted in subsequent days are Hindus. [See below the communally charged FB posts that were rapidly shared]
Unfortunately, matters did not stop with Mahagun posts going viral. Adding fuel to the fire, Union Minister of Culture and Bharatiya Janta Party MP, Mahesh Sharma, met the residents of Mahagun Moderne on 16th July, and himself made insinuating references to domestic workers as ‘Bangladeshis’. He questioned the police verification process in place, and claimed that household needs compelled middle-class homes to employ ‘Bangladeshis’! With sinister confidence, the MP went on to say that the jailed slum dwellers “would not get bail for years”.
The MP even threatened trade union and human rights activists supporting the workers with dire consequences.
Currently, thirteen workers are languishing in the Dasna Jail since 13th July, and the Noida police have deliberately made it difficult for their lawyers to get them bail by slapping the charge of attempt to murder.
Following closely on the heels of the Union Minister’s visit to Mahagun, on 17th July shanty shops opposite Mahagun Moderne, on which the slum dwellers were dependent for their daily provisions, were razed to the ground. Clearly, while the Noida police and politicians organize confidence-building sessions with the Mahagun residents, they have simultaneously unleashed a reign of terror on domestic workers and their families living in the neighbouring slums.
As of today, all workers from Maldah and Cooch Behar districts of Bengal have been blacklisted by the Mahagun residents through the private maintenance and security company, JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.) to whom these services have been contracted. Interestingly, JLL is an American MNC offering professional real estate services and investment management. It has a global business that runs into forty billion rupees. In India the Company provides its real estate services in eleven cities. Given its financial interests, the JLL team in Mahagun has been working hard to ‘repair’ its image. With the help of vindictive residents at Mahagun, JLL has cracked down on the domestic workers through blacklisting, enforcement of written undertakings, fresh police verification, etc. There are also efforts being made to introduce a new housekeeping company in place of individual domestic workers.
The blacklist began with some 60 names and has off late swelled to over 140 workers. A sizeable section of these workers are Bengali Hindus. Domestic workers who have been reappointed are being forced to undergo a police verification process yet again. In fact, the situation is so hostile that all domestic workers working in adjoining housing complexes have been compelled to undergo police verification, despite having done the same a month or so back. This is a sinister attempt by the Noida police to get the workers to show up at the local police station and to possibly make further arrests, given that one of the FIRs lodged by Mahagun residents has been filed against un-named persons. The constant fear of arbitrary police action has, in fact, forced male workers to stay away at night from their homes in the slum. The female domestic worker and her husband continue to be hunted down by the police; not with the intention to investigate the matter from the perspective of the FIR lodged by them, but with the intention to place them in police or judicial custody.
A close examination of this incident, but also the broader context in which the confrontation took place is truly necessary. Below are the details of workers’ experiences, important points to note about the Mahagun case, and a critical assessment of the peculiar nature of employer–employee relationships in the domestic services industry.
1) Made in Bengal: maid in the Noida
With the steady liberalization of India’s economy, the number of workers caught in informal sector employment in the cities has grown exponentially. The number of domestic workers has also risen consistently in the post-liberalization. The 1991 Census recorded ten lakh domestic workers. Subsequent NSSO data of the post liberalization period has mapped a continuous increase in this figure. The NSSO data of 2004-05, for example, has recorded forty-seven lakh domestic workers in India; the majority of whom, i.e. thirty lakh, was women. As of today, a large number of these workers are inter-state migrant labourers from impoverished districts in Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Conservative government estimates place their figure at 4.5 million. However, other assessments put the figure of domestic workers between 15 million to 90 million.
The continuous growth of domestic workers in the country is an indicator of a deeply entrenched agrarian distress. Almost all these domestic workers have been compelled to move to the cities due to little or no access to land. Coming from either backward tribal tracts or from poor/small peasant backgrounds, many have recently lost whatever source of agrarian income they had. Unable to find regular work in the village or nearby qasbahs, they have been migrating in large numbers to the metropolitans. Many of the impoverished women and children are victims of human trafficking as local contacts of placement agencies have strategically spread out over backward districts. These wily middlemen easily bribe or fool families into sending their female relatives to earn ‘handsomely’ in the city.
A large pool of these workers are from Bengal, which may come as a surprise, given the general perception that the state underwent land reform under four decades of rule under a parliamentary Left government. Unfortunately, the state, especially its eastern districts, has witnessed very little development, and poverty is widespread. This is partly an outcome of the long-term impact of the Permanent Settlement imposed in this region during the colonial period. Truncated land reforms in the post-independence era are another reason for this dismal situation. Since the late colonial period the region has been a hotbed of radical sharecroppers’ movements against landlordism, such as the Tebhaga movement launched in 1946-47. Riding the wave of the peasant movement, the early communist party consolidated its base across many parts of Bengal, and eventually proceeded to form the government in West Bengal. Despite this, land reform has been a truncated process even in Bengal. The land reform movement (Operation Barga) and general land reforms that were launched under the aegis of parliamentary Left governments have, however, benefitted mostly a wealthy segment of occupant tenants. The NSSO data of 1999, for instance, has reported that only 30.6 per cent of all sharecroppers were registered under Operation Barga, and that there was a distinct class bias working. Other studies too have noted that influential segments of the peasantry have benefitted most from the process, which is why till today they own the largest and most productive landholdings in the village. Another important report of the West Bengal State Institute of Panchayats & Rural Development (SIPRD) showed that in 2003 as much as 14.37 per cent of registered bargadars had been dispossessed of their barga land, 26.28 per cent were insecure about losing their land in the near future, while 13.23 per cent of pattadars had also been alienated of the land they had received. With the brisk development of capitalism in agriculture there emerged a well-entrenched interlocked market for land, credit and produce, which ultimately ensured further pauperization of small pattadars and further contributed to the swelling ranks of rural poor.
As a consequence, it should come as no surprise that so many migrant workers in Delhi-NCR can be traced to West Bengal. Migrating with their families, many of these impoverished women first pick up jobs in the various construction sites. They quickly get absorbed as domestic workers once the real estate buildings are opened to occupancy. As initial entrants into the domestic services market the desperate women agree to dismally low wages. This means that with each new set of migrant workers entering the city, there is a depression in the wage rate for such services. Meanwhile, most of the men folk continue working as daily wage construction labourers. Only some of them proceed to pick up jobs as maintenance staff and cleaners in the residential complexes. From Bengal to Delhi-NCR, the journey of these migrant workers is ridden with nothing but precarity and over exploitation.
2) The slum: the abode of hundreds of domestic workers and their families
The palatial Mahagun Moderne stands in sharp contrast to the slum tenements in the vicinity. For the workers living in these slums near Mahagun Moderne, their home constitutes a 12 x 8 feet tin box. Over and above Rs 10,000 that they are compelled to pay for installation, the workers have to shell out a monthly rent of Rs. 500/- for the claustrophobic tenement, and an additional Rs. 200/- for electricity, which is available only for a few hours at night. The rent is, expectedly, paid to local notables of nearby villages. A few installed hand pumps are the only source of water in these slums. A handful of hastily erected, make-shift toilets can be found where hessian cloth, instead of doors, is used to guard privacy. The slum is prone to flooding whenever it rains, and the swamp breeds numerous diseases. As the sun sets, large parts of the slum plunge into an eerie darkness as the only source of lighting comes from a few flickering street lights.
Sun-burnt, frail children of the workers can be found playing in the dirt. Passing by the one-room tin sheds, one often comes across sleeping infants who are covered with flies. None of the children go to school. In fact, despite the sheer poverty in this large slum cluster, forget a school; there is no aaganwadi in sight.
The children’s parents can be seen rushing to work. The women report for work at the neighbouring buildings by 5:30 – 6:00 in the morning. Some of them have bought cycles so as to commute faster to the various residential societies where they have found work. The men folk also leave early to get to nearby construction sites. While the women of the family earn paltry monthly wages as domestic workers, the men of the family engage themselves as daily wagers. Most of the men work as construction workers, or as maintenance workers in building complexes like Sunshine, Antriksh, Mahagun, etc.
3) Unveiling the panopticon: heightened surveillance on domestic workers and the alienating work regime in modern housing societies
Mahagun Moderne constitutes a ‘new’ way of life – a mini city in itself. As projected by the builder, Mahagun provides a “comfortable and fluttering lifestyle”. The landscaping, posh interiors and multitude of world class facilities for the residents are the first few things that catch a visitor’s attention. Indeed, it is difficult not to be intimidated by the sheer size and spread of the buildings and facilities. From a large swimming pool to a place for pets to play, Mahagun seems to have accounted for everything. The imposing 22 towers of different heights have grandiose names which leave the average visitor fumbling for the correct pronunciation. Many of the towers’ names are that of legendary cities found in different countries like America, Italy, Spain, etc. With names like Manhattan, Avalon, Siena, Milano, Eternia, Crema, Valencia, Ferrera, etc. there is a clear assertion of the class status of the Mahagun residents.
Of course, a more discerning look, especially starting at the gate, provides a different picture. Watching a frail domestic worker undergoing a ‘tap-down’ by guards manning the complex’s gates is the first unusual sight. Following in the footsteps of the domestic worker through the day, one begins to wonder if there is any space for the woman to even sit down and rest as she rushes from one flat to the next. Labels distinguishing elevators to be used by workers and those to be used by the residents are another perturbing feature. The ugly underbelly of otherwise seemingly serene life in Mahagun begins to expose itself. Here, in the ‘new world’ of ‘self-sufficient’ residential complexes a large number of impoverished workers are clearly being exploited for a multitude of domestic chores. For example, in the host of facilities so carefully constructed and provided for by the Mahagun builders, there is no sign of a rest/recreation room for the hundreds of domestic workers flocking the complex from morning to evening. Clearly, a space for pets is more important than the space for a cook, ‘maid’, mali, driver, cleaner, maintenance staff, etc. to sit and rest while they move between jobs! Sitting in the common areas with CCTV cameras is not appreciated and often one gets into trouble for doing so. So basically, the workers are forced to be on the move constantly – something which is starkly different from the way in which the work rhythms usually function for domestic workers in older residential neighbourhoods and workplaces. A chai shop in close vicinity, community parks, etc. are easily accessible common spaces in older residential areas where workers have known to rest and interact with each other in between their given routines of work.
Another embodiment of the intense exploitation faced by domestic workers is the entrenched system of surveillance on them, which breeds a constant unease of being watched continuously, and thereby, nurtures immense vulnerability in the domestic worker. All common areas are installed with CCTV cameras, and domestic workers are unable to enter many such residential complexes without a ‘PASS’ issued by the employer after police verification. Despite submitting all valid documents, such verification almost always requires the domestic worker to pay money to the local police.
Mahagun Moderne has a particularly rigorous system of frisking staff that enter and exit the building. The checking/frisking at the gate is so rigorous that domestic workers are regularly inconvenienced. Calls are made to the residents by the guards even if they are slightly suspicious of a domestic worker’s movement and belongings. If a domestic worker enters the complex with a hundred rupee note, if she/he exits with even ten rupees extra, clarification is sought and the ‘madam’ is contacted. The frisking is so rigorous that domestic workers are literally unable to borrow money from each other while inside the complex. This is because such borrowing and access to money cannot be corroborated by the worker’s employer. Given this heightened degree of surveillance, the charge of theft slapped on Johra Bibi by her employer appears all the more as an accusation that has been concocted post-factum, i.e. well after Johra Bibi filed her FIR on the morning of 12th July.
Inside the ornate flats, a relationship of abject servitude is evident. Employers are in complete control of the work conditions and the remuneration governing the relationship. Here, inside the ‘madam’s’ hearth there might not be CCTV camera, but there is a powerful whip of domination and surveillance at work. Here it is the word of the ‘madam’ that reigns, and workers are reduced to a highly vulnerable and over-exploited position. Typically, this employer-dominated work relation is characterized by low, stagnant wage rates. Wages are particularly low for Bengali and adivasi workers. The current rate in Noida’s Sector 78 for cleaning and washing of utensils twice a day is a miserly Rs. 1200/- to Rs. 1500/-. For cooking a meal twice a day for an entire family, a domestic worker is paid somewhere between Rs. 2000/- to Rs. 3000/-. Very often employers host a larger number of persons in their homes and do not pay the equivalent amount for the extra load of cooking and utensil washing. So, in many cases, domestic workers are cooking for six to 10 persons for days together, and without a raise in their wages.
Many women slaving away at such low wage rates are subsequently compelled to seek employment in more than one flat, and to make their teenage daughters pick up similar work. Extraction of more work than agreed upon at the start of employment, and the practice of arbitrarily reducing wages are rampant problems that breed over-exploitation of domestic workers. Wages are cut at the discretion of the employer, who has the last word on the number of days worked and time clocked. Of course, the majority of employers refuse to pay the domestic worker for the period when they themselves travel and are not around to get the work done. Such forfeiture of wages for no fault of the domestic worker is hardly recognized as an anomaly.
With respect to the larger quantum of work extracted, it is not uncommon to find young children (often bestowed with the now derogative, patronizing term ‘chotu’), as well as adult women being ‘employed’ as full-time domestic workers, where only food is offered in return for the 24X7 services extracted. In Mahagun Moderne itself, the Facility Office was forced into action when it was discovered recently that a wealthy resident had been keeping a full-time ‘maid’ without providing her with food, supposedly to tame her into docility.
Undoubtedly, over-exploitation of the domestic worker is facilitated by the sheer intensity of manual work extracted, low remuneration and also the regular denial of leave. In this regard, extra-economic coercion is deeply entrenched, with ‘madams’ showing up at the worker’s doorstep to compel her to come to work. Denial of weekly rest is hence a pervasive practice. Irregular payment of wages by employers is another deeply entrenched problem in this work relation. With wages withheld for two to three months, domestic work is reduced to a form of servile labour that resembles bondage. In fact, a frequent complaint of domestic workers is that they are often threatened, post-facto, with accusations of stealing when they make attempts to obtain their pending wages. In this way, many intimidated domestic workers continue with their services, and are compelled to receive payments in lump-sums that are much lower than what was agreed upon as monthly wages.
Typically, workers’ attempts to renegotiate their terms of work are outbid by verbal, and often, physical assaults by employers. Cases of rape and murder are numerous. However, deadly assaults on domestic workers by their employers are usually brushed under the carpet as ‘suicides’. Local police stations are notorious for filing weak FIRs against employers, and delaying the filing of charge-sheets. Botched up medical reports and tardy police investigations lead to a situation where guilty employers are rarely arrested; making the conviction rate negligible.
If verbal and physical assaults prove inadequate in taming domestic workers into submission, many employers then simply proceed to debar the affected workers from entering the building complex. An arbitrary measure like this leads to a situation where the worker is unable to enter the complex to report for work at other flats. Domestic workers then take on an almost absolute risk of unemployment or criminalization when they try to obtain their dues. Such authoritarian power of the employer in this work relation bears close resemblance to penal work regimes of the early colonial period in which employers predefined the terms of contract and penalized attempts by the worker to leave or renegotiate the contract.
In the Noida incident, the domestic worker claims the same, which is that she began to be assaulted when she brought up the question of wages owed to her and expressed an unwillingness to continue working. In this regard, the fact that Harshu Sethi has claimed in repeated press statements that she ‘extracted’ a confession from Johra Bibi about stealing is indicative that she tortured the domestic worker. No employer has the right to take the law into his/her own hands and act in accordance to his/her ‘better’ judgement. But, hardly ever is the question asked why the madam took the law into her own hands and proceeded to punish the ‘maid’?
The question hardly ever arises, given just how unregulated domestic work is, and the tacit logic which accompanies unregulated work relations; namely, that the individual employer is not simply the employer but a quasi-magisterial power in the work relation. A corroboration of this essential fact can be found in some recent government reports. For example, the Ministry of Women and Child Development in a 2014 study revealed that across the country 3511 cases of violence on domestic workers were officially reported in 2011, while 3564 cases of such violence were officially reported in 2012. It is chilling to think how many thousands of unreported cases of verbal, sexual and other forms of physical assault on domestic workers exist on the ground.
4) Details of the incident
Johra Bibi is a domestic worker, who is a resident of Maydam village in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, and has been working and living in Noida for twelve years. She is from an impoverished Bengali Muslim family. She has been working in Mahagun Moderne residential complex (in many of the flats) ever since the residential complex became functional. She is a frail woman and has four children as well as a sixty-year old mother-in-law to look after. Johra’s oldest son, Rahul, is fifteen-years old. She is also mother to thirteen-year old Raju (who lives in their village in Bengal), eleven-year old Ashraf Ali, and a one-and-a-half year old toddler, Ameena.
Johra was forced to come to work at the Sethis flat on 11th July 2017, although she had expressed an unwillingness to continue working at their residence in June itself. She was compelled to report for work by Harshu Sethi because she was told she would be paid her pending wages of two months if she came on 11th July. Johra reported for work on 11th July at 8:00 am along the Sethis’ cook. Usually she would finish the morning shift of work in all the different flats and proceed home to eat her lunch around 12 noon. On 11th July she did not return for lunch and was untraceable even in the evening.
Johra alleges that while she was working at the Sethis flat, Harshu Sethi came from behind and started verbally abusing her and accusing her of stealing money. Harshu made statements like ‘mein tumhe koode-daan mein phek dungi aur kisi ko pata bhi nahi chalega’, ‘chal facility par, mein tujhe dekhti hu’, etc. Sensing something amiss and fearing the worst, Johra began to exit the kitchen. At this point, Harshu Sethi began physically assaulting Zorah Bibi and snatched her phone. [As the case is now subjudice, further sequence of events is being eschewed]
Fearing the worst, Johra’s husband visited the Mahagun complex on the night of 11th July. He checked the register at the gate and noted that while his wife had entered the complex in the morning, she had not exited it. Unsatisfied with Harshu Sethis response to his queries, he dialed 100, the police’ helpline number. Two constables subsequently visited the Sethis. They did not allow Johra’s husband to enter the flat with them so there is no proper account of the supposed enquiries made by them. On stepping out of the flat, the two constables claimed that they couldn’t locate Johra and could do nothing further. When Johra’s husband persisted, they instructed him to file a missing person complaint at the local police station. At this point, the employer (the Sethis) made no complaint to the visiting policemen that the missing domestic worker had been caught stealing. This is an important point to note, for it indicates that the accusation of theft was levelled by the Sethis, post-factum.
Johra’s husband proceeded to submit a written complaint about his missing wife at the Sector 49 police station. It was by now nearly 12 o’clock at night. The desperate husband received no assistance at the police station. In fact, in a highly dismissive manner he told by a policeman that “yeh bhi toh ho sakta hai ki vo kissi ke saath bhaag gayi ho”. When Johra’s husband persisted that such was not possible, he was told to arrange for photographs of his wife. Of course, police check posts were not relayed the information of a missing woman. Neither was a search party constituted by the police. In fact, Johra’s husband was not even provided a stamped copy of his complaint with a diary number. Surely, such apathy and laxity on behalf of the Noida police would definitely not have been observed if a female resident of Mahagun Moderne had gone missing.
Hassled family members met outside Mahagun Moderne in the early hours of the morning the next day, 12th July, so as to enquire if Johra had exited the building complex. On hearing about Johra going missing, other workers who were reporting for work at Mahagun began gathering. This was an impromptu response and was far from a planned, premeditated form of action. Around 6:00 am Johra was suddenly brought out, and seeing her visibly traumatized countenance the gathering grew even more agitated.
Pushing and shoving by the private security guards worsened the situation. Agitated workers retaliated in self-defense. In this confrontation no one from the private security guards or Mahagun residents was hurt. Interestingly, in spite of 500 workers allegedly storming the residential complex, apart from a few scratches on the window panes near the Mahagun gate, no major infrastructure or even the glass of a single vehicle was damaged.
The police proceeded to file an FIR by Johra Bibi – something they were compelled to do because of the collective pressure of domestic workers. Johra’s is the first FIR lodged in the matter, i.e. at 8:20 am on 12th July. It is a very short-circuited (5-lines) account of what Johra actually claims happened, and seems to be an FIR prepared in haste by the local police station. It does, however, categorically mention that Johra was assaulted by her employer and that the guards of the security complex proceeded to attack the assembled workers after she was brought out of the complex on 12th July.
Subsequent to Johra’s FIR filed at 8:20 am in the morning, three separate FIRs have been lodged by the local police under a cocktail of charges, which include punishment for rioting (section 147), rioting armed with deadly weapons (section 148), voluntarily causing hurt (section 323), wrongful confinement (section 342), criminal intimidation (section 506), attempt to murder (section 307), among others. While one of these FIRs was lodged at 11:05 am by the employer, another was lodged at 1:30 pm while the third FIR was lodged at 9:05 pm by persons claiming to be representatives of the Mahagun residents and a supervisor, respectively.
Strategically, each of these three FIRs is more detailed than what was filed as an FIR of the domestic worker. In each of these three FIRs, the perpetuators are mentioned as Johra Bibi, her family members and several unknown persons. In two FIRs filed, no names are mentioned as victims. Moreover, the employer’s FIR has even charged the agitators with section 307, i.e. the attempt to murder. Importantly, it is in this FIR that the first reference to theft by the domestic worker appears, making this accusation appear more as a post-facto addition to the narrative than anything else.
Overall, the filing of three separate FIRs against the workers has worked towards building a convenient sequence of events as each FIR consists of additional details that cover up for weaknesses in the FIR filed prior to it. The filing of three separate FIRs in this incident is an outright violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure. According to section 154 of the Code, the purpose of filing a first information report (FIR) is to set the machinery of criminal investigation into motion. The FIR culminates in the filing of a detailed police report under section 173 (2) of the Code. Thus, additional evidence and statements related to an incident are recorded as part of a charge-sheet filed after further police investigation. In this regard, the FIRs lodged on the 12th July incident by two other Mahagun residents, amounts to a sheer abuse of power by the Noida police, which has compromised the possibility of a fair and just investigation by an act of double jeopardy. In other words, in complete violation of the law, the workers have been charged with the same crime and on the same counts three times as a result of three FIRs being lodged against them. Undoubtedly, the police’s express purpose is to harass the migrant workers and to trap them in jail by complicating the bail procedure.
Expectedly, on the basis of these three FIRs, on the night of 12th July the police swept down on the slum neighbouring Mahagun Moderne. They randomly picked up 58 men from the slum, including children. One of these children was the domestic worker, Johra Bibi’s fifteen-year old son. The children were detained in a crowded police lock-up in Noida’s Sector 49 till the evening of 13th July in contravention with all juvenile justice laws of the country. Police high-handedness was such that Johra’s son was deliberately released only at the end, and this was despite his relatives reaching the police station with his documents on the morning of 13th July. Rahul even claims that he was denied water to drink the entire night that he was detained in the police lock-up. From the 58 detained workers, thirteen workers were produced in court. When a team of activists from Gharelu Kamgar Union (GKU) reached the thana on 13th July along with a lawyer, a copy of the FIRs filed against the workers was denied by the SHO. The team was told to get what they wanted from the Court. Within minutes the bail petitions filed on the spot by local lawyers were dismissed.
5) The alienating court procedures
When the thirteen workers and their kin were brought to court on the afternoon of 13th July, chaos was evident. Like a swarm of flies, local lawyers pounced on the affected workers’ kin. Swooping down on the desperate and lost family members, the corrupt lawyers began soliciting their substandard services, promising bail with absolutely no idea of the contents of the FIRs. The nature of their intervention itself indicated their incompetence, and just how difficult getting bail was going to be. After all, recent court judgements, as well as the ineptitude and corrupt practices of lawyers have ensured that workers, across the board, languish as under trials. On an average, the experience of workers in court has been extremely bitter.
The local lawyers at the Noida District and Sessions Court extracted at least five hundred rupees each from the assembled family members. Ironically, and in a manner extremely damaging for the case, two different lawyers filed bail applications for different sets of workers. Neither of these lawyers had access to the three FIRs against the thirteen workers. They had charged the hapless relatives of the workers for a one-minute appearance, and that too in the matter of just one of the three FIRs. One of these lawyers came to know only in front of the magistrate of the District Court that section 307 was part of the FIR against which he had filed a bail application! These lawyers confidently proceeded to instruct the families to arrange for more resources so as to file bail applications in the Sessions Court. The union of domestic workers that reached the Noida court had to pay almost Rs 1000 as a bribe to get one of local lawyers and policemen to hand-over a copy of the three FIRs. Henceforth, the union and a team of human rights lawyers have been managing the legalities of the case. The legal entanglement is such that the three separate FIRs against the workers has required each incarcerated worker to produce two bailees with respect to each of the three FIRs. Thus, if granted bail each worker has to produce six bailees; amounting to seventy-eight bailees in total for release of the thirteen workers on bail!
The filing of fresh bail applications was a tedious process, given the corrupt functioning of local lawyers and court officials. The union’s legal team has had to work very hard to get the local lawyers to comply with a common strategy that favours all incarcerated workers. The money-minting practices of local lawyers are so entrenched that getting access to even a non-certified copy of the bail dismissal order required the union to pay Rs 600 to the local lawyer. The lawyer obstinately refused to give a copy of the order even to the family members of those whom she had represented in the District Court on 13th July and was now hoping to represent in the Sessions Court. Given these malpractices, it was not surprising to learn that the local lawyers’ association in Noida has imposed a separate format of wakalatnama to be used in the court; forcing clients to pay Rs 150 for a stamped judicial paper which otherwise costs Rs 12.
As of today, the bail petitions are pending in the court and it is with respect to only one of the three FIRs that the workers have been granted bail. The day they were supposed to produce their bailees and sureties, and other bail petitions were to be taken up in court, there was a strike by local lawyers. Each day of the court proceedings have, more or less, brought huge disappointment and distress. In this light, it was heart-breaking to watch a despondent female domestic worker sell her pink bicycle so as to tide over the expenses incurred by court proceedings.
Things function in an equally dismal and arbitrary way in the Dasna Jail. Ironically, despite visitors’ hours being advertised as 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, the jail stops visitors at 12 noon itself.
(6) The challenge
The extent of the absolute authority enjoyed by the employer in the domestic work industry is undeniable. Importantly, the Indian state plays a complicit role in this private nature of regulation and the resulting overexploitation of domestic workers. This is evident in the Indian state’s unwillingness to ratify the ILO’s Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and thereby, to modify landmark labour laws so as to bring domestic work under the purview of state regulation. The complicity is also evident in the day-to-day response of the police when matters of pending wages, physical assault, etc. are reported by domestic workers. The average police station and PCR are unwilling to intervene in the domestic work relation, as expressed in the lax response of the police to workers’ complaints. Their unwillingness is driven by the tacit understanding that the nature of domestic work is such that there is nothing unusual about getting punished in various extra-judicial ways. The manual nature of the chores performed and the private/personal nature of the workplace is used to make a case for privatization of regulation and continuous non-intervention by the state in the domestic services industry.
It is then evident that the form/mode of this work itself needs be transformed. However, mere legislative action by the state is insufficient to transform the logic and dynamics of this work relation. This is because the state’s role as an enforcer of labour rights rests ultimately on the public presence of collective labour’s power. The private regulation of work in this employer–employee relationship can only be challenged by the public power of collective workers. Only such organized power can ensure implementation of existing legislation, and also to take the private realm of domestic work beyond the framework of dependent labour.
Maya John teaches History at Jesus and Mary College in the University of Delhi, and is associated with Gharelu Kamgar Union (GKU).
Sunita Toppo is a full-time domestic worker, and is an executive committee member of GKU.
Manju Mochhary is a former domestic worker who had been working since childhood as a domestic worker. She is also an executive committee member of GKU.