A Class War in India’s Capital and the Global Movement for Domestic Workers

Originally published at Feministing

In Noida, India, a sprawling suburb on the outskirts of Delhi, expensive apartment buildings tower over shantytowns. Each day, migrant workers – mostly women – rise from these informal communities to commute to their jobs as domestic workers in nearby luxury apartment complexes.

Like most urban spaces, it’s a scene of blatant, crackling inequality.

One such luxury housing “colony,” Mahagun Moderne, was recently the site of a conflict that revealed the deep classed and gendered exploitation faced by domestic laborers, who are as a whole underpaid, overworked, subject to poor working conditions – and disproportionately female.

shanties

The rubble left from razed parts of the slum outside Mahagun Moderne.

On the morning of July 12, a large group of residents from a slum (or informal development) near Mahagun Moderne entered the colony in search of their neighbor and friend, domestic worker Zohra Bibi. Zohra had been missing from the night before, when her husband requested the police search for her. And while the guards working at the elite housing development had informed Zohra’s husband that she was not on the premises, when the group of residents went to search for her, she was discovered within the development itself. Zohra reported that she had been kept against her will and physically abused by her former employer, to whom she went to get her salary. The employer, on the other hand, accused Zohra Bibi of theft, filing another police report against the worker.

The consequences of the case were forceful and swift, demonstrating the police and government’s complicity in elite oppression of domestic laborers: Police charged 13 slum residents with crimes including attempted murder, though there was no evidence of physical assault. In a raid of Zohra Bibi and community’s neighborhood shortly following the incident, police officers allegedly indiscriminately rounded up men and boys and ransacked the shops that form many of their livelihoods. The city government razed part of the slum, citing a city-planning reason unrelated to the incident. And a stream of people online began calling the workers in the colony “illegal Bangladeshis,” implying that because they were poor and mostly Muslim, they had actually come to the country without documentation from Bangladesh and thus did not deserve equal protection under the law. Finally, colony residents allegedly drew up a “blacklist” of at least 80 slum residents to refuse to hire them as a punitive measure.

Activist and pro-worker groups also sprang into action, with Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), a grassroots women’s rights group focused on combatting state violence, among the groups to conduct a fact-finding mission and issue a statement of demands for redressal of the situation, including that:

Workers in the Mahagun Society complex be paid their due wages, withdraw the list of blacklisted workers, and ensure the safety and security of the workers in the residential complexes and also in their residences.

Women make up a disproportionate number of domestic workers in India, with women constituting two thirds of the informal labor sector. They are disproportionately internal migrants from the poorest states in the country, and they often work for well-below minimum wage (which is in many places as low as $30/month) with no government protections mandating vacation, sick leave, or overtime, and little redress for physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

While the conditions of development that led to the riot-like conflict at Mahagun Moderne are perhaps unique to the Indian context, the violent class and gendered exploitation which underlies it is common to domestic labor all over the world. We know that women earn on average 24% less than men. They are also globally responsible for two and a half times more unpaid domestic labor than men and are less likely to have savings. The situation is exacerbated for domestic workers, whose frequent lack of legal protections leaves them vulnerable to abuse. In the United States, for instance, 95 percent of domestic workers are women. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 36 percent of nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners are undocumented, rendering them particularly vulnerable to economic, physical, and mental abuse.

In an interview with progressive youth-authored website Youth ki Awaaz, Zohra Bibi said:

When you leave your village and come to Delhi, you are a dog. You aren’t a human. You are treated like a dog if you are a domestic worker.

The story of exploding class tension in a posh housing development is an example not of the violence of the workers themselves, but the violence of a system structured around exploited labor, and exploited women’s labor in particular. In the age of Ivanka Trump-style “women who work” rhetoric, we should mark the struggles and movements of most of the world’s laboring women who are more likely to find themselves cleaning houses than working in the c-suite. Stories like Zohra Bibi’s are not souvenirs of far-away places, but testaments to the global struggle of domestic workers who, from Delhi to California, are determined to get their share.

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