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Dear Indians: please stop treating your help like family

It’s not about Prabhu Dayal.

Whether the Indian Consul General in New York treated his domestic help as a “slave” and made sexual advances at her will be decided by the courts.

It’s about timing. And it’s about perception.

First the timing. Last week, India, which had initially opposed the bill, joined 395 others to vote in favour of the Domestic Workers' Convention in Geneva. The convention protects nannies, cleaners, cooks from abuse and tries to secure for them basic rights, overtime compensation, days off.

“The convention would help domestic workers both at home and abroad,” an Indian official told PTI. The official was probably thinking about the thousands of Indians employed as nannies and maids in the Gulf states. He probably was NOT thinking of Santosh Bhardwaj, the Indian Consul General’s maid.

Bhardwaj says in her lawsuit that she was forced to work long hours for $300 a month, her passport was confiscated, and she had to sleep in a storage closet. On top of that, she alleges, Dayal promised her more money if she gave him a “massage". Dayal has his own point by point refutations and calls her allegations “complete nonsense".

These cases might be extreme but it doesn’t help when the rest of the community goes into collective denial. Manpreet Romana/AFP Photo

It might well be.  But the he-said, she-said drama is less important here than the larger story against which this dirty laundry is being hung out to dry. On one hand, there is the 100th International Labour Congress in Geneva where India is piously signing on to the Domestic Workers’ Convention. On the other hand, Dayal is just the latest installment in a string of damning nanny diaries involving wealthy Indians and their household help.

That’s where the perception problem kicks in.

Indians are one of the wealthiest minority groups in the USA. In 2007, the median income of households headed by an Indian American was approximately $83,000, compared with $55,000 for whites. But when it comes to servants, they are gaining the sorry reputation of acting more like zamindars than employers.

Lakireddy Bali Reddy, one of the biggest landlords in Berkeley and the owner of a very popular dosa joint, was charged in 2000 with bringing 25-100 people from his village in India to work for him at little or no pay.  Young women were trafficked for sex all the way from his hometown in Andhra Pradesh. “He’s a god there,” his brother told the San Jose Mercury News. The whole mess unravelled when a 17-year old girl who had been trafficked into the country died of carbon monoxide poisoning in one of his own properties. She was pregnant at the time of her death.

In 2007, New York perfume millionaires Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani were convicted of physically harming their Indonesian maids, beating them with brooms, forcing one of them to eat 25 hot chillies and take freezing showers.

These cases might be extreme but it doesn’t help when the rest of the community goes into collective denial.  “There is no way on earth any Indian family in the United States could do what they were accused of,” their friend told the New York Times.

“When Indians migrate to foreign countries, many, even the well-educated ones, never really leave behind the feudal baggage they grew up with – even though they might like to think they have,” writes Viji Sundaram, who reported extensively on the Lakireddy case.

Part of the problem is cultural. Indians are hard-pressed to explain this “servant thing” to  curious Americans without sounding completely defensive. And they figure that surely their maid is better off living in an apartment in New York or Santa Clara than a chawl in Mumbai, so why is she complaining.

Several million Indians are said to work as domestic help all over  India, many without a single day off. It’s a cash economy and hard to track. There are unions for domestic workers in India but many of the people working as maids and cleaners might still not want to be tracked even if they might want the protections that tracking can bring. It suits both sides fine for it to remain a gray economy, very visible, but off the books.

But can you sign a convention in Geneva assuring maids of  a weekly rest day and exclude them from your own sexual harassment bill at home? Home is apparently not a “workspace” according to the law.

Meanwhile an Infosys engineer and his wife in Bangalore were accused a couple of years ago of beating their teenaged maid black and blue, forcing her to work nearly naked, and only have one meal a day.

If India is really serious about what’s happening to its domestic workers, it needs to pay attention to their plight not just in the kitchens and bedrooms of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh but also in Bangalore and New Delhi.

An official at the New York consulate told the media he had never heard any complaints from Bhardwaj about her treatment at the hands of the Dayals. When asked how she had been treated, he said, “Perfectly like a family member.”

Perhaps that’s our problem.  Maybe it’s time to stop treating our domestic workers like “family” aka the very poor relations and just treat them as workers and employees.