Child labour shames India's middle class

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2012, 12:00am


A New Delhi couple who mistreated their teenaged servant have become hate figures in the media but their behaviour is common. Not all middle-class Indians treat their maids quite as atrociously as this couple, who were both doctors, but often the difference is only in the details - scorn for domestic staff can be seen all around.

According to the police, the couple forced the 13-year-old girl to slave from morning till night and gave her only two meagre meals a day. They flew off for a jolly holiday in Bangkok, leaving the child alone, locked up in the flat, with enough provisions for just a few days.

Maddened by hunger and loneliness, on the fourth day, she went out onto the balcony and screamed for help. Neighbours called the police and the girl was taken into care. The couple were arrested when they returned to India. Their relatives leapt to their defence, claiming the couple had treated her like their 'own daughter'.

That's doubtful.

Although it is against the law, children under 14 are employed in homes because they won't answer back or demand better pay or conditions.

The self-serving rationalisation that's proffered is that at least they get three square meals working in these homes rather than the hunger of the rural homes they left behind. As though that compensates for humiliations such as being forced to stand beside a table in a restaurant while their employers enjoy their dinner.

The Indian middle class is unable to grasp the notion that a domestic helper is doing a job, with conditions and mutual responsibilities. Instead of work, the middle class wants servitude. Instead of professionalism, it wants subservience. And, the government abets this attitude by not regulating domestic work like it regulates other forms of labour.

Unicef says there are 35 million child labourers in India. The law prohibits children under 14 from working as domestic servants but Save The Children India estimates that, in Calcutta alone, there are 50,000 living with their employers. There could be millions nationwide.

If educated people such as this couple can treat a child with this degree of daily callousness, the reason is the moral vacuum in the Indian middle class. Yet the middle classes of many other countries have set moral standards to which societies should aspire.

In its selfishness, the Indian bourgeoisie is a class apart.

Families are focused on material enjoyment; the wider issues of society and of people who are less fortunate never cross their minds. The only hope is that if this couple are punished harshly, others might hesitate before being quite so cruel.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India