In 21st century India, the selfie is a great leveller. People like us take it. People like them also take it. The young preen before it. The not-so-young pose awkwardly for it. Infants wail into it. Pets look bored or bemused in it. Even the nation's prime minister has a weakness for it — enough to land him in trouble once. By now, most of our nation's leaders know only too well that every selfie is an opportunity, especially when taken while wearing spotless khadi and wielding a broom on a street, thoughtfully strewn with withered leaves. Recently, citizens were urged to take selfies this Independence Day to prove their patriotism — all for a retweet by government handles. Many social media users know that loyal fans of the government in power are willing to do much worse for such attention.
Given the selfie's endemic reach and influence, is it any surprise that an online retailer wants you to take a #SelfieWithDidi, and make it trend while you're at it? The eponymous Didi, however, doesn't refer to a sibling but to the ubiquitous domestic workers, without whose daily ministrations most middle and upper-class Indian households would come to a standstill.
So here's the marketing brainwave: the company sends you "a pair of exquisitely handcrafted earrings for that special woman to show her how much you care" for every order you place till 31st July. You are asked not to "overlook the quiet longing of your help even as she showers you with care and affection day in and day out". If you're baffled by this message, or by the fact that in spite of its good intentions it diminishes a salaried worker as 'help', you can stop thinking and hand over the earrings to the Didi who cooks and cleans for you (in case, you have a Dada working at your home, it's his loss). Then take a selfie with her, post it on social media, and voilà, mission accomplished.
The company is happy because it has made a sale, with a viral campaign in the bargain; you feel virtuous for doing a 'good deed' (and you didn't even have to buy a gift for your Didi at that, thanks to the freebie); and your Didi must be oozing gratitude, of course, because, you know, the only token that's lacking in her life is a pair of danglers she can probably ill-afford. The entire scene can play out like this cutely scripted ad, complete with feel-good props and all.
To be fair, there's nothing wrong about wanting to show your appreciation to the person who works hard to keep your home clean, sometimes puts three meals on your table, and ensures that your life functions without any glitches. But, presumably, there are more meaningful ways of doing so in a society like India, which is often in the news for treating domestic workers like bonded labourers, or much worse, as slaves.
The campaign feels especially supercilious in light of the recent upheaval in a housing complex in Noida over the alleged mistreatment of a domestic worker. Though there are conflicting versions of the incident, the worker in question accused her employers of not paying her salary for two months, assaulting her, and holding her hostage on suspicion of stealing money. Matters came to a violent head last week when the victim's neighbours from the adjacent slum trooped into the gated society and wreaked destruction on public property, demanding her release.
A version of this injustice is probably being played out every day in millions of households across India, not necessarily leading to an outbreak of rebellion, but rather, inflicting suffering on the victims who choose to remain silent due to the tragedy of their circumstances. As surveys have shown, a large number of women, especially underage workers, in this sector are either economic migrants or trafficked (PDF), and therefore vulnerable to being easily exploited.
Part of a mostly unorganised sector, domestic labourers in India do not have robust laws to safeguard their rights as workers. As journalist Tripti Lahiri showed in a recent book, the concept of a standard minimum wage does not exist within this informal set-up. Rather, pay, perks, and privileges are all determined by the ecosystem of the area within which the worker operates, or are simply set by the whims of the employer, with some negotiation from the worker.
Apart from these arbitrary forces controlling their income, domestic workers are often treated in gross violation of their human rights — not given food and rest between inhuman hours of manual labour, not allowed a day off in the week, and subjected to abuse or, worse, assault for perceived shortcoming or 'disobedience'. Add to these problems, the shocking ubiquity of underage workers, employed with impunity even by families that are likely aware of the gravity of the crime they are complicit in. Yet, so pervasive is the blindness of the authorities to underage domestic labourers, as well as the tacit sanction of the society at large, that such misdemeanours persist unchallenged, and are normalised as part of the daily patterns of middle-class life.
So, if we really want to make our Didi feel special, we can start by treating her like a human being who has the right to a dignified life and access to social welfare. We can begin by ensuring we pay her the minimum wage recommended in the state we live in, commensurate with the work she does, and maybe more. We can make her financially literate, if she isn't, by helping her open a bank account and linking it to all the government schemes she may be eligible for.
We can keep a regular check on her health, encourage her to buy a health insurance policy or get it for her as part of her professional benefit. We can try helping with her children's education and be sensitive towards any trouble, especially domestic violence, she may be facing at home. And just as we need our weekends and holidays through the year, we have to allow her weekly as well as annual leaves. To cut a long story short, we must behave towards her exactly the way we would expect our ideal employer to do towards us.
A domestic worker in most Indian homes is made intensely aware of their class and caste. Forget about letting them sit on the same furniture or level as their employers, they are often allotted separate utensils — amounting to a sophisticated imposition of untouchability. Even when the employers are humane enough to disregard these systemic inequalities, the world outside may not be equally perceptive. A recent case in point was the eviction of a governess from the lunch area of the Delhi Golf Club, where she had joined her employers for a meal, because she "looked like a maid", who are not allowed into that hallowed terrain.
Those who recommend a selfie, or the gift of a piece of jewellery, as antidote to such deep-rooted biases are not only blind to the enormity of the problem, but also part of it.
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