Domestic workers in a smart Delhi satellite town raided a tower block flat to release a detained colleague. Now, the relationship between Indian employers and their servants has begun to change.
‘How would we cope without someone to wash dishes?’
It all began on 11 July, when Zohra Bibi, (1) one of 500 domestic workers at Mahagun Moderne Society, a gated residential complex of 21 towers at Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, arrived at her employer Harshu Sethi’s flat. She told me that when she arrived, she was slapped. She tried to run, but had her mobile phone taken away and was forced to hide all night. Early next morning, her colleagues came with sticks and stones, shouting angry slogans.
She said: ‘I get up at 5.30 every day so I can be at my employer’s place before breakfast, at 7.00. We save our employers a lot of time by doing their household chores. I’ve been earning 17,000 rupees [$260] a month from eight jobs, and I’ve been doing it for 12 years. My eldest son, my husband and I helped to build Mahagun Moderne. When the residents moved in, I became a maid. I just walked through the gates one morning and asked for a job.’
She and her husband Abdul had been hiding from the police since 12 July at a secret address owned by the unregistered trade union Gharelu Kamgar Union (GKU), which claims 7,000 members. The police visited Sethi’s flat in the night of 11-12 July, after Abdul reported his wife missing. As they did not find her, Abdul told his colleagues and neighbours, triggering a riot on a scale that shocked India’s privileged classes. Zohra Bibi, wearing a kurta and a fine line of orange powder in the parting of her hair — ‘to make people think I’m a Hindu and avoid unnecessary trouble’ — is one of tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, who have migrated to India’s big cities from the state of West Bengal.
The domestic workers are there because they are necessary, like air-conditioning. It’s hard to imagine life without them
For better-off Indians aspiring to a western lifestyle, Noida’s concrete towers promise a glorious future of air-conditioning, broadband, Olympic-size swimming pools, tennis courts, crazy golf, security guards and an abundance of domestic workers. They don’t attract the super-rich (India has over a hundred billionaires) but are popular with self-employed workers, company executives, doctors and lawyers fleeing the overcrowding and prohibitive property prices of Delhi, who dream of joining the ‘global middle class’. Noida’s Romano development offers potential residents the chance to ‘Live in Noida, but feel like Rome’; a sign outside the Jaypee Greens development reads ‘Another place, another world’. Nearby, a corrugated iron shantytown houses an army of home helps.
An ordinary morning
The morning after the incident began like any other for the residents of the Mahagun Moderne towers (Manhattan, Venezia, Eternia etc). It was the time of day when the ‘madams’ usually drive their children to school or get ready for yoga class, while their husbands use their smartphones to order an Ola or Uber to take them to their offices in Delhi, and the domestic helpers arrive to do the cleaning.
Noida’s Romano development offers potential residents the chance to ‘Live in Noida, but feel like Rome’
But that day turned out different. Several hundred domestic workers from the shantytown, with their partners, soon joined by their neighbours — construction workers, rickshaw drivers, fruit and vegetable traders — broke down the gates to rescue Zohra Bibi, believing her to be in danger, and became visible for the duration of the riot.
Zohra Bibi was evasive on the exact timings. Her employer, the residents of Mahagun Moderne and the management company had all filed complaints with the police over attempted murder, damage to private property and riot. Abdul’s complaint against Sethi, for false imprisonment, was dismissed 10 days after the riot. The case was ongoing and Zohra Bibi couldn’t afford a misplaced word.
‘She struck me in the face’
‘What I can say is that on the day when I went to collect my outstanding pay, about 7,000 rupees [$110], Mrs Sethi slapped me, pushed me and threatened to throw me in the bin. I was asking her to pay me for the hours I had spent cleaning clothes, which was not part of my duties. She shouted at me and said I must give back 17,000 rupees, but I had not stolen anything. She struck me in the face several times, then said she would tell the security guards about me. I would have lost all my jobs. I spent the whole night at Mahagun Moderne. In the morning, the guards came to get me out.’
India’s middle class had never before faced a revolt by domestic workers on such a scale. Sandhya Gupta, a resident, told the New York Times: ‘They are like [a] bone that is stuck in our throats — we can neither swallow them, nor can we spit them out’ (2).
The Mahagun Moderne sales office was brightly lit, with plans for dozens of other huge projects on display, including Mahagun Maestro, Mahagun Manor and Mahagun Mansion. Marketing executive Manish Pandey said: ‘The shopping centre will eventually have 64 shops, and we have a primary school and facilities for a range of leisure activities, including tennis, swimming, basketball and fitness. We have 2,600 residents on a site measuring 25 hectares. The flats range from the classic standard, with one bedroom, kitchen and living room, to luxury flats with a floor area of 137 square metres.’
He frowned at the mention of domestic helpers working unsocial hours, racing between flats and tasks, with nowhere to take a break. He admitted there were no ‘servants’ quarters’ for their use, but felt this should not count against the complex’s image. ‘Do not write anything negative about us. Do not talk about the incident ... Everything is back to normal. We have 120 security guards, and they handled the situation without any problem.’
The day after the riot, the local authorities pulled down the dozens of stalls (shantis) outside the main gates of Mahagun Moderne, run by Bengalis who were suspected of having joined the rioters. In the shantytown, where workers pay local notables 10,000 rupees ($150) to move in and a monthly rent of 700 rupees ($10), 58 men were detained while the police raided their shacks (3).
‘We came to rescue our colleague’
The expressions of solidarity soon gave way to fear of a police record, jail or losing a livelihood. Zohra Bibi’s neighbour Amina Bibi said: ‘We came together that morning to rescue our colleague. We didn’t know what had happened to her, and when the security guards threw her out, we saw she was very weak.She was kept in the gated community all night, and beaten.’ Amina Bibi’s husband was one of 13 rioters in custody at the prison in Dasna, several hours by rickshaw from Noida. They are due to be tried by the end of the year, but their relatives fear they will spend a long time on remand.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which adopted its first convention on domestic workers in 2011 (4), their numbers worldwide rose by 60% between 1995 and 2011. India has no need to import Filipino maids, the most highly valued on the global market (5); they are trained as live-in maids, available around the clock (a model widespread in Europe until the mid-20th century), and far too expensive. The millions of domestic helpers working part-time in India’s big cities come from remote states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal. Besides rural poverty, the exodus is due to the huge cost of weddings, which the bride’s family must pay for, in addition to providing a dowry, as in Central Asia (6).
In the kitchen of a flat in one of the Mahagun Moderne towers, a cook was making chapattis. ‘He won’t talk to you,’ said his employer, a university lecturer (7).‘Domestic workers from the Cooch Behar and Malda districts [where Zohra Bibi is from] can no longer work here.’After the riot, the management banned 140 people from the complex for life.‘Most of the rioters were identified from CCTV, and from being quoted in the media. They made an exception [for her cook] because we wrote a letter of recommendation. It’s better not to talk to him.’
The lecturer is a Marxist, as is her partner, who teaches English literature in New Delhi. In their eyes, the most scandalous aspect of the incident was not the scale of exploitation it revealed, but the accusations made in the media, and on online forums and social networks, against Zohra Bibi and her colleagues. ‘They are not Bangladeshis, they are Indians. They are registered voters and have the right to work. They are not undocumented immigrants, and they have not come here to fight jihad.’ The couple were disgusted at the racist language.
‘Your grew up with them’
The lecturer quoted Engels, Bourdieu and François Mitterrand, then invited me to stay for dinner, along with Alok Kumar from the GKU, who had brought me to the flat; the cook disappeared. Her partner said: ‘The domestic workers are there because they are necessary, a bit like air-conditioning. It’s hard to imagine life without them: how would we cope without someone to do the washing-up and wash the floors? ... Indian cities have a glut of migrant domestic workers. In today’s market, workers can be replaced from one day to the next. So the attachment is no longer there. In the past, people had maids who were present 24 hours a day. You grew up with them. Now we have a hire-and-fire approach and part-time workers. If you need one, you just shout from your balcony. It’s part of everyday life for the middle class, part of the feudal culture in which we have grown up.’
The riot was a shock, not only because such revolts are rare in India, but because the affluent classes can no longer ignore their relationship with domestic workers. This is shifting away from having servants living as part of the family, towards hiring outside workers for just a few hours a day. Employers no longer want to be burdened with a continuous presence in their home, but still want to delegate troublesome tasks and save time. Though some domestic workers are hired by shouting from the balcony, the most common way is via WhatsApp groups. The 2,600 residents of Mahagun Moderne have used their smartphones to create a forum where they exchange information on good and bad workers.
The couple earn around 200,000 rupees ($3,075) a month, nearly 20 times the median income. They pay their cleaner 3,500 rupees ($55) a month for two sessions of 2-3 hours a day, morning and evening (dusting, washing-up, floor cleaning). They pay the cook 4,000 rupees a month to prepare their evening meal, which he leaves in the kitchen. Having helpers saves time and lets them focus on work and family life. They admitted the helpers’ pay was so low they couldn’t even afford to catch a bus, but pointed out that it is already five times higher than the average wage in West Bengal (which helps employers restrain their urge to be generous).
No specific rights
Domestic workers, IT workers, secretaries and many other Indian workers are used to negotiating pay and conditions, and nearly 80% of the labour market is informal. Subcontracted domestic work is the oil that lubricates Indian society. Domestic workers, often from the lower castes, are not protected by legislation, and have no specific rights. According to a study by the National Sample Survey Office, there are 4.5 million of them, including three million women; trade unions and human rights organisations claim there are as many as 20 million, which would be the world’s largest pool of domestic workers.
According to a study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 3,511 domestic workers filed complaints against their employers for physical violence in 2014. But many tens or even hundreds of thousands don’t dare complain (8). Only extreme violence will sometimes persuade people to break their silence.
On 10 March, at Gurgaon, a satellite town like Noida, Ranjitha Brahma, 17, is said to have been pushed off a balcony on the 11th floor of a tower block on the Carlton Estate by her employer Sonal Mehta, wife of the vice-president of the Indian branch of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Local police regard her death as suicide, though an autopsy revealed multiple facial injuries (9). No date has yet been fixed for a trial for incitement to suicide (under section 306 of India’s penal code).
The lecturer’s partner told me: ‘Such acts often occur in these complexes. The victims are always migrants who have been harassed by the police and their employers. There was nothing ideological about the events on 12 July. It was a reaction to the cruelty of some employers, that’s all.’
The GKU’s Kumar disagreed: ‘The riot really was ideological, in the sense that domestic workers are organising by forming alliances among themselves, with cooks, and with some progressive employers, to fight for better pay and to end unfair reprisals and day-to-day violence. Social victories always begin this way, without a clear slogan — just the idea of protecting oneself. What happened is that colleagues came together to fight for their rights. Not their legal rights, because they don’t have any, but their rights as human beings and as workers. We, the GKU, arrived after the clash to try to structure their movement, to link it up with other struggles and, above all, to protect the most vulnerable people, such as Zohra Bibi, her husband and the wives of the 13 men who were jailed.’
‘It was a criminal conspiracy’
A delegation of employers from the complex agreed to answer questions.Anoop Mehrotra, a senior manager for a telecoms company, said: ‘It was a criminal conspiracy, not class warfare at all. Someone planned this attack. How else could you bring three or four hundred people together, early in the morning? There is a brain behind this. Someone brought people together and whipped up the mob. The mob did not want to know the truth, they wanted to kill the family. That’s what it has come to.’ For the last decade, people have been talking about the 2008 murder, also in Noida, of Lalit Kishore Chaudhary, CEO of the Indian subsidiary of Italian automotive components manufacturer MNC Grazziano Trasmissioni, beaten to death during a riot by 200 workers who had just been made redundant.
Jagjit Singh, a hospital manager in Delhi, said: ‘Why would you allow a domestic worker into your home, and have them serve you breakfast, clean the house, then come back in the evening and clean again, if there is hatred? If I worked in someone’s house, I could not allow myself to hate my employer. It would be better to quit. What started as a small incident became a major blaze. It was premeditated.’
The employers have widespread support, especially from the police, who have organised confidence-building sessions for residents, and from Narendra Modi’s government. On 16 July, culture minister Mahesh Sharma, known for making anti-Muslim, anti-modest dress and anti-western statements, said the rioters would be banned from the complex: ‘There is no doubt that the [Sethi] family is not at fault. It is clear that a group of people got together with the intent to injure and kill ... I assure you that they will not get bail for years to come. We will fight the case on behalf of the family’ (10).
Since then, Mahagun Moderne residents have adopted new practices. ‘By clubbing together to buy dishwashers, and using specialised agencies, we will be working with people who come into our homes, but we won’t have any kind of relationship with them. We won’t know their names, and we won’t make them cups of tea — it will be like the US,’ Singh said.
Zohra Bibi’s former employer, Sethi, a schoolteacher married to a captain in the merchant navy, is haunted by her memories of that day, when she fully expected to die: windows smashed, furniture knocked over, dozens of workers crowding on to the terrace. She told me: ‘At school, I teach my pupils the right values, morality, inner joy. I am a very positive person, but this incident has made me very negative about humanity.’
‘Nothing anyone can do’
Sethi has stopped hiring domestic helpers directly and now uses JustClean, an ‘American-style’ cleaning service. She believes domestic helpers ‘don’t understand the language of love. They are wicked. We work hard, too. Who has given them the right to come and kill us? They had stones and iron bars, and we just had time to lock ourselves in the bathroom. We stayed there for three-quarters of an hour. They wanted to kill me or rape me. If people are set on committing a crime, no one can stop them. It’s like the bombings in France or in Barcelona. There’s nothing anyone can do. We have security guards, but if 400 people break down the gates, there is no way to stop them.’
Apart from polarising public opinion over the supposedly Bangladeshi and potentially jihadist origins of the rioters (accusations dismissed by all the employers I met), the riot has had repercussions in residential complexes across India. On 22 July in Chennai, 50 domestic workers demonstrated in support of Zohra Bibi. ‘On the morning of July 30,’ Aakash Joshi reported, ‘the residents of an upscale condominium in Gurgaon were woken up by domestic workers protesting for higher wages. “All of us stayed indoors. After the Noida incident, it’s better to be safe,” remarked one of them’ (11).
At another complex in Noida, the management company wrote to residents with advice that included ‘Be sure to check your staff’s police records’; ‘Before hiring domestic workers, make certain that your security is optimal’; and ‘Security cameras installed in the common areas of your home can be used to record what your staff are doing in your absence.’Is the informal services society, on the basis of which India’s affluent have organised their lives, only possible with walls, private security guards and continuous video monitoring?
(1) In West Bengal, ‘Bibi’ is appended to the forenames of married women.
(2) See Suhasini Raj and Ellen Barry, ‘At a luxury complex in India, the maids and the madams go to war’, The New York Times, 15 July 2017.
(3) See Maya John, Sunita Toppo and Manju Mochhary, ‘Noida’s domestic workers take on the “madams”: A report from ground zero’, Kalifa, 2 August 2017.
(4) Convention no 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, adopted 16 June 2011 and in force since 5 September 2013. Only 24 member states (not including India) out of 187 had ratified it as of 1 November 2017.
(5) See Julien Brygo, ‘Filipino maids for export’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 2011. See also the photographic movie Profession, maid (17 minutes, C-P Productions, 2015) adapted from this article, www.vimeo.com/55929793 or www.mondediplo.com/outsidein/profession-maid-a-photographic-film/.
(6) See Juliette Cleuziou and Isabelle Ohayon, ‘My big, fat, very expensive wedding’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2017.
(7) Real names not given since, as Muslims, she and her husband fear reprisals.
(8) Maya John, Sunita Toppo and Manju Mochhary, op cit.
(9) See Rashpal Singh, ‘Protest at police station against death of a domestic help from Assam’, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 12 March 2017.
(10) Pathikrit Sanyal, ‘By siding with flat owners, Union minister Mahesh Sharma has shown ugly class bias’, Daily O, 18 July 2017.
(11) See Aakash Joshi, ‘An immoral subsidy’, The Indian Express, Noida, 7 August 2017.