Anecdotes from the Life of Domestic Workers in Delhi and In Defense of Sumari`s Rights

“A domestic animal is one, such as a dog or cat, that is sufficiently tamed to live with a family or one, such as a cow, chicken or horse, that can be used to contribute to a family`s support,” according to various English dictionaries. When something is `domesticated`, it is converted to domestic use, as in the case of a wild animal that is tamed. So, carrying this analogy further, can we say that domestic helpers are those human beings, who are tamed to cater to the needs of so-called upper- and middle-class households?

According to the ILO`s recent Advocacy Brief on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the total number of domestic workers in Asia and the Pacific, though hard to estimate, is believed to account for as much as 2.5 per cent of the total employment in developed countries, and as much as 10 per cent in some developing countries. The vast majority are women-mainly under the age of 40; in very many cases, children are found working in the homes of others.

In India, domestic work is a vast area of employment, but there is no precise sense of its exact size and extent. The estimated number of domestic workers in India is 90 million this is probably an underestimate because there has been no scientific study to document such workers in the country. “Around 50 lakh people in India keep more than two-three domestic workers as help,” says Harish Rawat, Minister of State for Labour and Employment. The rough estimate by the Task Force is that it has grown by 222 per cent since 2000.

Caste: A Big Barrier

Caste and language play an important role in the lives of domestic workers. Indian society is still far from being caste free; and although some changes have taken place in urban areas, most of the villages are still plagued by casteism and feudalism. Lower-caste families continue to work as bonded labour for upper-caste landlords. As domestic workers, they get only food and shelter. The entire family is supposedly `taken care of` by the feudal joint families that employ them. The children too are not spared-at a very young age, they are taught to serve and not to question.

A Brahmin family still largely employs a Brahmin cook. A lower-caste woman is expected to clean the vessels, sweep and mop the floor, and wash clothes but when it comes to cooking, the upper-caste community still prefers to employ upper-caste cooks. Even in states that boast of high literacy, the majority of domestic workers are dalits or tribals and they are conveniently understood to `prefer` certain jobs. However, `preference` for a certain kind of work is not theirs to express. “Although women migrate in large numbers to work in Delhi as domestic maids, Muslims and lower castes are not preferred,” says Bharti Sunar from Hoogly distirct of West Bengal. “The dooms, chamars and muslims are the worst affected. If you are dark, you will not get a job. One has to hide one`s caste identity, most of the time, to get a job,” says Bharti.

“Women change their dressing styles too; they wear bangles, put bindis, even if they belong to the Muslim community, and select a Hindu name,” she says. Thus, Jameela and Sheriffa become Sita or Geeta; their burkhas give way to sarees and mangalsootras-just to get work. “We are not cheating anyone. We do this because it is a question of survival,” says Nadira, a maid from Beghampur.

Bharti is a dalit (Dass) and her husband Ramkumar Sunar from Nepal belongs to the goldsmith (kshatriya) community. They stay with their children in Sector 9, Rajapur village. “My wife is dark and so people categorise her as a lower caste. It is difficult for her to get work as a cook. I am fair, therefore, I get work as a cook,” says Ramkumar. “Complexion plays a crucial role in getting a job,” says Bharti. “Though dark, I manage to get work because of my surname; most of them know that Sunar is a kshatriya,” she adds.

The upper class has enough education to identify the caste of workers; but their education does not result in the understanding or realisation that the barrier of caste is something that needs to be done away with if we as a nation have to progress. Unfortunately, their ability to discriminate between castes is applied only to deny those seeking work on the basis of their caste, or to use them only for cleaning toilets.

Caste consciousness is not only with those who hire domestic maids; it also exists in the minds of the workers themselves. “I will never clean the toilet, it is not my work; it is the work of the jamedar,” says Asha Lamba, a Nepali. A majority of the women interviewed have similar opinions. “Achoot logon ka kaam hai bathroom safai karna, hum nahin karte (Cleaning the bathroom is the work of untouchables; we will never do it)” is what they clearly say.

Language: Another Barrier

“When I came to Delhi, I barely understood Hindi. Slowly, I learned the language and now can communicate in Hindi,” says Maya, a maid in south Delhi. Maya is a Nepali and during her initial years in Delhi, communication was very difficult. “Nepali and Hindi have some similarities, but my cousin, who went to a Marathi family, had a tough time,” says Asha Lamba. “There are obvious differences in our use of the language, which differentiates us from upper caste women domestic help,” says Bharti Sunar. “It is the issue of survival; so we try our best to adapt to the situation by trying to talk like the upper castes.”

There are three types of domestic workers in the city: the live-in maids, the live-outs and the part-timers.

The Live-ins

Live-in maids are full-timers, who stay either in the servant quarters or within the house of the employer. “The work we do never gets over,” says Basanti Toppo from Jharkhand. Basanti came to Delhi with her sister in 2002. “We have to be available 24 hours a day,” says Himani, another domestic maid from Jharkhand. “We have to get up early in the morning and start our work. Often, when we go to bed after finishing all the work, some member of the house will come home late. We will then have to open the door, warm up the food, serve them, wash the utensils, clean the table and only then go to bed,” says Himani.

There is no accurate data on the number of live-in maids. The highly exploitative conditions in which they work can be understood only when someone comes out to tell her/his story. Every employer guards his/her privacy. Questions on the status and conditions in which domestic workers live and work are not entertained.

“The live-ins work in highly exploited situations,” says Sunita, the coordinator of the National Domestic Workers Union. “Accessibility to those workers is nil because they seldom come out or interact with others,” she adds. The case of Sumari, a young girl from Jharkhand, is one such case of exploitation.

Sumari has been bedridden for the last one-and-a-half years. Her body, from hips downwards, is numb. Her legs are getting weaker day-by-day. Her condition is the outcome of a suicide attempt. Sumari, beaten up by her employers, decided to commit suicide by jumping from the terrace of the fourth floor of the house where she was working. The events leading to this are as follows:

Sumari worked as a live-in maid in a house in Janakpuri, West Delhi. She got the job through John Enterprises, a placement agency. Though the policy of the placement agency was to give workers only for 11 months, Sumari`s was an exception. She worked in the house for more than one-and-a-half years. The employers-both husband and wife-would scold her in abusive language and torture her unnecessarily; she continued working there doing all the household chores, till that fateful day, which changed her life drastically.

Another maid asked Sumari to her carry her bag to a nearby house where some construction work was happening. The construction labourers saw Sumari and asked her where she was from. Sumari`s employers saw her talking to the workers and abused her in front of the workers and other neighbours. They dragged her inside the house and beat her brutally, all the while alleging that she was an immoral character. They then asked Sumari to cook the food and clean the entire house in half an hour, failing which she was threatened that she would be beaten.

Shattered and totally humiliated, Sumari started crying and went up to the terrace. The lady of the house followed her shouting abuses. In utter panic, Sumari jumped from the terrace. She was taken to the hospital and was admitted for two weeks. Later, John Enterprises took her to their agency office; since then she has been lying on the floor without proper treatment. The catheter through which her urine passes has become old and infected. She cannot move or get up; everything has to be done lying down. Her mother was called to the placement agency and is staying with Sumari.

“A staff member of this agency was my cousin. It is only due to his intervention that the agency brought me here. When he argued that I should be given better treatment, he was thrown out of his job,” says Sumari. The placement agency wants to collect more money from the employer and so is compelling Sumari to make false charges. The employers, on the other hand, say that if Sumari keeps her mouth shut, she will be paid compensation. “What the arguments are between the agency and employer I do not know. I`ll be happy if I die because I have been lying on this floor on a chaddar for more than one-and-a-half years. I have bed sores. It is better that I die,” she wails. She doesn`t know what to do. No one is there to take care of her. Her mother, a villager, who does not know Hindi, is confused.

Sumari needs treatment. She needs good food; at least, she needs to be able to return to her village. But nothing is happening. There are innumerable others like Sumari-beaten, exploited, sexually abused, raped or killed. These women are simply trapped and are known to no one but their employers.

The Live-outs

Live-outs are those domestic help, who report at their employer`s house in the morning and return to their homes in the evening.

In practice, however, nothing is defined. Live-outs, who work for one household, have to earn enough to pay their rent, electricity, water, food, fuel, transportation and other costs. “We are fortunate because the house we stay in is owned by my employer and so we have to pay only Rs 850 towards rent. Electricity and water are not charged.” says Julie Thigga, who stays in Jasola village near Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.


Julie came to Delhi nine years ago from Chirayya village in Jharkhand along with her husband Kaleb Thigga, who works in an export factory in Okhla. Julie`s first job was as a masseuse. She did it for the members of two to three households for a few months. Later, she managed to find a house in which to do household chores, and has been doing this work for the last eight years. Julie is paid Rs 1,800 per month for doing chores including dusting, cleaning, sweeping, mopping, cleaning utensils and washing clothes. Her work starts at around 9 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. She is given breakfast and lunch. “Except cooking, and cleaning the toilets, I do all the work,” says Julie.

Nirmala, from Jharkhand, has been in Delhi for the last 15 years. She came to Delhi with a friend. Within two months, she got a job in a house in Sarita Vihar and, till date, she has been working in the same house. She works for eight hours, cleaning the entire house. She is paid Rs 3,500 per month. In spite of the fact that the nature of work which Julie and Nirmala do and the time spent are somewhat similar, there is a huge difference in payment. There are, in fact, no general standards for fixing the wages of domestic workers.

The Part-timers

Part-timers are those who work for two to three hours at a time in different houses. They work like machines, running from one house to another. They are paid according to the tasks they undertake; for example, they earn Rs 300 for sweeping and mopping, washing utensils and washing clothes whereas they earn Rs 200 for dusting. These rates also are not fixed. “Apart from the household work, our employers make us do many other jobs-cutting the vegetables, looking after the baby and, at times, running errands,” says Ellamma, a domestic worker. The worst part is that in the end, nothing is recognised. The workers are only cursed, blamed and fed with leftovers.

Placement Agencies: Boon or Bane?

Domestic maids in metros are largely migrants. Unemployment, poverty, loss in crops, mortgaged land, siblings to be married, death, sickness, etc., are some of the reasons that force these workers to migrate to cities in search of jobs. Many young girls are enticed by the lure of city life and the idea of getting some quick money. They are brought in by relatives, neighbours or friends from the same religion, community or caste. Placement Agencies are a relatively new phenomenon.

There are no rules or restrictions for setting up a placement agency. A majority of the existing placement agencies are fraudulent by nature. An agency is like an octopus. It entangles the girls in its tentacles, with no escape from its clutches. One agency in particular, John Enterprises, gave a clear picture of the atrocities perpetuated in placement agencies. It is located in Raghubir Nagar, Rohini, West Delhi. The inmates of the agency allege that the owner, Mr. John, and his wife are in Jharkhand jail for committing crimes of molestation, rape and kidnapping. Reportedly, Mr. John`s second wife is running the office in Raghubir Nagar. None of the employers for whom the agency has procured domestic workers could be reached.

Sushanti, and her brother, Bathru, have come all the way from Orissa in search of their sister Mubika, who was brought to Delhi by John Enterprises with an assurance of a job. Mubika has been in Delhi for the last one-and-a-half years. Till date, neither her parents nor relatives have spoken to her nor have they received any letter or money from her. “We have tried to get in touch with her. When any of our relatives or neighhbours comes to Delhi, we request them to meet her. But the placement agency always refuses to allow them to meet her because she is working in a household as a full-timer,” says Bathru. “My brother has been here for the last one month and I came two weeks ago, but madam has not given us our sister`s address. We don`t need her money. What we would like to know is whether our sister is alive or not,” says Sushanti.

Placement agencies place workers on contract for 11 months. The employers make payments each month for the workers to the agency directly. After 11 months, when the girls wish to go back to their native place and ask for their money, the agency does not give it to them. It forces them to enter into another 11-month contract with another house in another area. The agencies make sure that the girl does not run away nor get close to the people who employ them. Sunita Sangre, from Jharkhand, finished her 11-month contract and pleaded for at least a ticket to travel back home. “This agency is very big and they recruit women in large numbers,” says Sunita. “The agency people never check how we are treated at our employers place. If the employer shifts house, we are taken along with them; in such cases even the placement agency will not know where we have been taken.” “Humare madat karne koyi kanoon nahin hai (There is no law to help us),” says Sangeeta, another domestic maid.

“At nights, the offices of many placement agencies turn into entertainment places for the police and local goons,” says an activist (who wanted to conceal his identity) in West Delhi. “When the police and the goons are there to support them, who will raise voice against the agencies?”

Child Labour

Despite the much-talked-about inclusion of domestic work in the schedule of hazardous employment in the schedule of the Child Labour (Prohibition & Abolition) Act 1985, child labourers are increasingly employed as domestic workers in cities. Very few organisations seriously take up the issue of child domestic workers. “Child domestic workers get the least priority, if we look at governmental interventions,” says Urmila, a child rights activist. Many of the children start working when they are six years of age. In most cases, the child will begin by assisting its mother in domestic work. By the age of ten, she will be expert enough to manage an entire household. These child workers are also not free from beatings and abuses.

“My day starts in the kitchen. I have to prepare breakfast and lunch before l0 a.m. The whole family takes packed lunch,” says Nandini, a 13-year-old, who works for an upper middle-class family. She has to get up at 5 o`clock in the morning to start cooking. Besides cooking, she does sweeping, swabbing, cleaning the vessels and washing the clothes. From 10 o`clock onwards, she becomes the babysitter. “Madam will always have guests. They may come at any time. I will have to cook food for all of them. Madam will be busy entertaining them so I have to finish all the work without any help.” The likes of Nandini`s madam are quite common. Children are made to work day and night without any consideration. “After all this hard work, I am scolded and thrashed even for the most trivial reason,” says another twelve-year-old domestic worker. Cases of violation rarely get reported because the employers are usually influential.

Most employers have a disdainful attitude towards their maids. They miss no opportunity to rebuke this underprivileged lot. For the rich and the influential, the domestic workers are paid slaves. They call them `servants` and make them do all the menial work. This `servant culture` prevails in most households. Parents hardly have the time to see how much work piles up on the domestic help. Even the children of the household learn to take things for granted and hardly show respect to the person they consider doing the `dirty` work.

Living Hell

“Getting a house to stay in Delhi is a nightmare,” says Parvati, a domestic maid in the Shivalik area of South Delhi. “Very often, we have to shift houses due to some flimsy reason cited by the landlords to increase the rent,” says Maya, a maid in Sarvodaya Enclave. Maya pays Rs 2,800 as rent and Parvati Rs 3,500. Added to this are the electricity and water charges. A majority of the domestic workers live in resettlement colonies, or jhuggis. The city beautification drive by demolishing jhuggis has rendered thousands homeless in Delhi.

Very often, these resettlement colonies do not have any toilets. “We use the open grounds,” says Nirmala, an inmate of Jasola village jhuggis. After shopping malls have come up near these open grounds, it has become difficult to find an isolated place,” she adds. “We are not allowed to use the toilets at our workplace,” says Bharti Sunar. “We have to either control ourselves or, if the situation worsens, to use the common lavatory or look for open grounds. The open grounds in front of the apartments we work in are always parks and gardens. So the only option left we have is to control our urge or go home,” adds Bharti. “This results in problems with urinary problems and the uterus gets affected,” says Namita, a health worker.

“Our children are not allowed to play in the parks where we stay,” complains Bharti. “Those parks are only meant for the landlord`s family.”

The worst problem these workers face is that they have to purchase their groceries and vegetables from the shop that their landlords own. As tenants, they are supposed to buy rations from this shop only. “The landlord`s charges for each item are exorbitantly high and its quality is poor, but we have no other option. If we do not buy from him, we will be thrown out of the house. If we do buy things from elsewhere, we can bring it in only late in the night when we are sure that the landlord and his family are fast asleep,” says Ramkumar Sunar, Bharti`s husband.

“This phenomenon is spreading very fast,” says Rajendra Ravi, an activist of the National Domestic Workers Union. “It is quite visible in Aligaon and many other places. The family that owns the colony runs the shops too and make the inmates buy goods from these shops. And worse than the grocery shop is the money lending business of the landlord. When someone falls sick or faces any emergency, these domestic workers borrow money from the landlords. They pay 10 per cent interest monthly for the money borrowed. They pledge their things such as TVs, gold and gas cylinders. If the pledged goods are not taken back in a month`s time, they become the property of the landlords.

Counting Domestic Workers

In India, efforts to organise domestic workers have been taken up by all central trade unions. The AITUC has come up with an innovative concept. “We are asking all our middle class working women, especially from banks, LIC, GIC, etc., to make sure that at least the rights of domestic workers who work for them are protected,” says Amarjit Kaur, national secretary of AITUC. “We are asking them to take the initiative to make workers aware of the need for organising.”

Organising domestic workers is a herculean task because there are no proper statistics available. There are innumerable civil society organisations that are taking the lead in highlighting the issues of domestic workers.

“The ministry has asked the National Labour Institute and the National Social Security Board to compile the statistics of domestic workers in the country. It is one of the priorities of the government,” says Harish Rawat. “There should be a legal provision for protecting the rights of domestic workers.”

In an effort to register the domestic workforce and protect them as well as the employers/employees, police stations are supposed to issue identity cards to domestic workers. Employers are expected to give photographs of their maids and have them registered with the police station of their locality. The workers interviewed express happiness over this process because they need not answer the embarrassing questions of the employers and resident societies. Sadly, this drive is yet to be implemented effectively.


“I tie my five-year-old daughter Seeta and four-year-old boy Rahul to the cot till I come back from work,” says Parvati, a domestic maid. She has been doing this since they were out of the cradle. Women`s movements and feminists in the country need to realise how these workers-who come to work at their places-the ones that make it possible for them to be outside the house and to work and live comfortably-live their lives and cope with their appalling circumstances. Ironically, this domestic workforce-exploited, abused and dehumanized-is the biggest contributor to women`s liberation and independence!

Sindhu Menon is Special Correspondent, Labour File, and Executive Officer, The Information and Feature Trust, New Delhi. Email: