An Indian couple was arrested yesterday on charges of physical and psychological abuse of their 13-year old maid. It reminded me of my childhood visits to India and the great discomfort I always felt around domestic workers, especially when the workers were my age and, eventually, younger than me. As far as I saw, my relatives were good to those who worked in their households. In the case of one girl who seemed a teenager or, at most, a short 18-year old, the women in the family would sit her down for reading lessons every evening after dinner, often to much protest by the girl who wanted to watch television with the other children in the family. I saw relationships that looked very maternal between the women in a household and the young helpers; and fraternal between children in the household and workers. Still, although these situations are common and don’t grab headlines, they are wrong. And, of course although the relationships seemed maternal and fraternal, it was clear which child would be doing the cleaning and running errands (often for me, when I asked my aunts and grandmothers for things like toilet paper and my favorite vegetables for dinner)). The boundaries of work were bright and visible, even if the boundaries of love were more fluid–and I do believe there is genuine love in some of these relationships.
Still, participation in a system that is ripe for abuse seems unethical precisely because it creates a situation that others can then abuse. It normalizes a situation that others–even if not yourself–can abuse. Surely the growing Indian upper classes can commit to terms of domestic work that do not allow the demons among them to take advantage of fellow humans with lesser means. This would mean a commitment to shaming friends and relatives who have crossed the boundary of exploitation. A cultural shift that makes obvious the boundaries of ethics in domestic worker employment is urgent. My American frame as a child–while surely flawed in its black-white view of West-is-Best–at least served me well in making an unjust, terrible system seem morally repugnant. What would it take for this cultural shift to occur?