NEW DELHI — A mob of angry domestic workers chanted in protest and threw stones at a luxury high-rise outside India’s capital on Wednesday, laying bare the deep divisions between the haves and have-nots in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Police said that more than 150 maids working in the apartment complex in suburban Noida set upon the gates just after 6 a.m. — about the time many of them report for duty — because they believed one of their fellow domestic workers was being held inside against her will.
The maids forced their way into the Mahagun Moderne complex, throwing stones and leaving broken windows and strewn glass in their wake.
Police said one of the high-rise’s residents had accused her employee of stealing. The maid’s family said the woman was assaulted after she demanded two months’ worth of unpaid wages. The maid and her family gave conflicting stories about whether she had been held against her will or hid in a basement overnight.
“Madam said to me, if you try to run away, I’ll throw you in the dust bin. I’ll kill you,” the maid, Johra Bibi, said in a whisper, lying on a small cot outside her slum dwelling not far away.
So far, the employers and their employee have filed dueling police complaints against each other — with the maid accusing the merchant navy officer and his wife of wrongful confinement and “voluntarily causing hurt” and the couple accusing her of stealing money. The complex and its residents also have filed complaints about the alleged rioters.
Most maids in India work long hours for paltry wages, with little time off. Some state governments have tried in recent years to regularize wages for domestic workers — in Rajasthan, for example, they now must be paid at least $87 a month. But many make less than that.
India’s elite have for centuries employed servants, but economic liberalization and the rise of the middle class meant that the number of cooks, maids and drivers has grown exponentially in recent decades, journalist Tripti Lahiri wrote in a recent book, “Maid in India.” Hundreds of thousands have migrated from villages to India’s major urban centers to tend to the needs of the elite.
But class divisions between household staff and their affluent bosses remain deeply entrenched, Lahiri writes: “We eat first, they eat later … we live in front, they live in the back, we sit on chairs and they sit on the floor, we drink from glasses and ceramic plates and they from ones made of steel and set aside for them, we call them by their names, they address us by titles …”
More than 2,000 families live in Mahagun Moderne, a gated, 25-acre complex with swimming pools, a tennis court and landscaped pathways. A short distance away, their household help — mostly migrants from the state of West Bengal — live in tin-roofed huts in a muddy field, bathing from a communal tap.
Lahiri said such migrant shantytowns often develop next to buildings in Noida, because the residents don’t want to give rooms in their homes to the helpers.
“There are also a lot of daily injustices that people swallow when they’re working as help and then, at some point, the suppressed anger and fear coalesce around one particular incident, which is maybe what we saw,” she said.
Wednesday’s brawl occurred after a confrontation between Johra Bibi and her employer over about $125 in back wages, according to the maid’s husband, Abdul Sattar, a construction worker.
He said that after his wife did not return home Tuesday evening, he went to the employer’s home with police looking for her and was told she was not there. Dozens of angry domestic workers crowded at the complex’s gates in the morning, shouting for Johra Bibi’s release.
“No one does anything for us. No one helps,” Sattar said. “God makes us poor. What can we do? We do what the rich tell us to do. We sit where they tell us to sit. They reign over us. Even you know the rich and the poor can never be one. They think the poor are not human.”
The maid’s employers, in a statement given to the Indian Express newspaper, told a different tale. They said that they had confronted their housecleaner over $150 that had been stolen from the home and told her they had a video of the theft.
She admitted stealing the money, the statement said, and asked that it be deducted from her pay. When they refused, the employers claimed, she ran away.
One of the protesting maids, Haseena Bibi, 28, said that while Johra Bibi’s employer had been abusive, many of the other families treated their help well and that the maids were glad to have their jobs. Now, they feared they might lose them.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Haseena Bibi said.
A resident of the apartment complex told News18.com that the mob had attacked the flat of the employer and that the terrified family hid in the bathroom.
“I am yet to understand how these people dare have the audacity to enter a residential complex and create such ruckus,” the resident said. Mahagun Moderne’s residents have decided not to let their maids work in the complex the next week “so that they are taught a lesson for life,” according to the report.
Swati Gupta contributed to this report.