Thursday, August 3, 2017

Maid in India: Tripti Lahiri on her book on domestic workers in India

In her book, Maid in India, Tripti Lahiri reports from the trenches of an often-invisible class conflict – that between the millions of India’s domestic workers and their middle-class or upper middle-class employers. That conflict flared up in spectacular disorder in a recent apartment complex in Noida, but its lines are negotiated daily in upper-caste, upper-class homes: can the maid sit on the dining table? Where can she sleep? Is she allowed to open a fridge to pour herself a glass of water? In this email interview, the Hong Kong-based Lahiri, who is Asia bureau chief for Quartz, speaks about how what led her to write this book, why employers in India organise against their workers and why the life of maids represent both a fulfilment and denial of the promise of economic mobility. Excerpts:

What set you off on writing this book? Was it a particular case of abuse?
It wasn’t a case of abuse, actually quite the opposite. It was spending time with a woman whom I first got to know as a cook, but who I realized over time was a significant figure in her own neighbourhood—a banker for other women, a one-person character verification service, and so much more. I realized I knew very little about the lives of people who worked as help—away from their jobs in our homes—and it made me curious.

Is there anything that surprised you about the recent events at Mahagun Moderne, Noida – a maid who went missing, her family which allegedly attacked an apartment complex, and the subsequent backlash from the state, including a central minister who sided with the employers?
One thing that doesn’t surprise me is that a minister would side with employers. That’s happened before as well, when a minister said homes shouldn’t be treated like factories, speaking about demands to better regulate work in homes. I’m also not surprised to hear the employers referring to the migrant workers as “Bangladeshi illegals”—though I’m surprised by how quickly those comments surfaced. I am not saying there aren’t any undocumented immigrants working in India. But the speed with which the employers sought to undercut the complaints of the migrant workers by suggesting they don’t have any status to demand rights was astonishing. I am surprised that the workers revolted, because of the likelihood of facing repercussions from police and municipal authorities, or losing their jobs, and while we still don’t know all the details, I would understand that to mean there were long-simmering unaddressed grievances against employers.

What are the number of domestic workers in India?

The National Sample Survey Office in its most recent survey of employment put the numbers at 3.5 million or so, which seems an underestimate. For context, Brazil, about the same population as Uttar Pradesh, counts seven million domestic workers. At the upper end, the estimate is nearly 20 million workers from the government-backed Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council… read more: