Having lived in India, Tripti Lahiri was aware of the ubiquity of domestic workers in the country, where nearly all middle-class and wealthier households have a maid, a cook, a nanny or a driver – and sometimes all four.
But it was not until she herself hired a maid in New Delhi that she became intimately aware of their lives.
The result was “Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Home,” a book published this month that chronicles the lives of maids in India’s big cities.
The mingling of the “One percent and the 99 percent” may be less visible in wealthier countries, but in India, where the 99 percent works in the homes of the one percent as servants, it is hard to ignore, Lahiri said.
What makes the equation even more unequal is that most domestic workers are young, largely uneducated women from poor, rural areas, who live apart from their families and have few rights, she said.
“They often work in poor conditions, and are very vulnerable to abuse and assaults, having their pay withheld and not being allowed to go back to their families,” Lahiri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Hong Kong.
“While many of them may come to work of their own free will, the conditions and pay may not be what they are promised, and they are helpless to change it.”
India’s rising affluence, nuclear families and growing numbers of working women have spurred demand for domestic workers.
At the same time, as fewer traditional jobs are available in rural areas more people migrate to cities for better opportunities.
There are more than four million domestic workers in India, most of them women, according to official data. But campaigners say there are likely to be millions more in the unregulated sector.
A bill to provide domestic workers with a minimum monthly salary of 9,000 rupees ($140) and benefits including social security cover and mandatory time off is awaiting passage.
India’s ratification this week of two global agreements on eradicating child slavery may help stop the employment of minors as maids, campaigners say.
The rising popularity of digital apps matching maids with prospective employers also offers some benefits.
Still, there have been several high-profile cases of abuse of maids in recent years, many involving well-off families.
Lahiri said she was struck by the dichotomy of their lives.
“Many of them were teachers or nurses or a profession that involved an element of care, but they behaved very differently with their maids,” she said.
“The behavior is always defended in some way. It makes for a very toxic relationship between the employer and their maids.”
There are at least 67 million domestic workers globally, and this number is increasing steadily in developed and developing countries, according to the International Labor Organization. About 80 percent of them are women.