US diplomat row overlooks Indian maids' plight

US diplomat row overlooks Indian maids' plight

MUMBAI - Americans were shocked at the alleged US$3.31 (S$4.19)-per-hour wage paid to an Indian diplomat's housekeeper in a case that has sparked global outrage. But to Rupa Thakur, who does the same job in Mumbai, it sounded like a small fortune.

The mother-of-three works 13 hours a day, six days a week for a family in the suburbs of India's financial capital, taking home 8,000 rupees ($130) a month - or about 38 US cents an hour.

"Life is tough," said Thakur, 39, who moved to the city from Nepal as an uneducated girl to find work.

"After daily expenses and paying my children's school and college fees, I can save only around 2,000 rupees. With everything getting costlier every day, it is difficult for people like us."

India erupted in fury last week over America's strip-search and arrest of an Indian diplomat accused of underpaying her housekeeper. But the story of the maid herself has received far less attention back home.

Domestic service is a prominent feature of life in urban India, with a maid seen as a stamp of middle-class membership. Many of those who can afford it also have drivers, cooks and nannies.

Too many hours, too little cash

Such workers often start as young women or girls, like Thakur, who travel from rural areas to try to make a living and support their families, but who often end up working too many hours for too little cash, activists say.

While New York rigidly enforces laws to ensure even the lowliest employees get no less than $7.25 an hour, such legislation is almost entirely absent for Indian domestic workers.

"They need some kind of standardised wage practice in force," said Mumbai social worker Avisha Kulkarni, who campaigns on the issue.

There are also frequent reports of domestic servants being abused by their wealthy employers.

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