Apologies for the cheesy( and trite) title –I just could not resist it–but this is something I have been thinking about ever since the Devyani Khobragade incident shot into limelight. Do we in India treat our maids right?
Having domestic workers do our dishes and clean our homes is a comfort most of us here take pretty much for granted. So used are we to their services that the very idea of having to do without them makes us break out in a cold sweat. As someone who has to move often, I am frequently in the state of being ‘in-between’ maids, even if it is just for a few days–and those are stressful times for me. I am very grateful when a new maid arrives to deliver me from the misery.
I do my best to keep them happy, though I do always stick to prevailing market rates. Here in Mumbai, for instance, I pay Rs. 1000 for work that takes my maid a little more than an hour to do. Apart from doing dishes and cleaning at my place, she also cooks for a few families and makes on an average Rs. 2000 per household per month through cooking. She comes to work in our society at 7 in the morning, works till three and makes Rs. 12000 per month in all–not bad for someone who is illiterate and for work that requires no investment in the form of training. It compares favourably with what security guards at buildings/malls or assistant shopkeepers at provision stores make for working similar, if not longer, hours. That they may all be underpaid is a topic for another day. Underpayment is a curse that afflicts the entire blue-collar workforce in India.
Coming back to maids in Mumbai, I have noticed that attrition-rate is also high. In the one year that my maid has been with me, I have seen her drop several jobs and take up new ones immediately–she is actually spoilt for choice. If anyone tries to mess with her, I don’t imagine her putting up with it just because she has no other option.
But then again, I realize this is a metropolitan city–maids have it relatively easier here. My maid in Chandigarh, for instance, got Rs. 800 for the same work that fetches Rs. 1000 in Mumbai. She also did not appear to have the luxury of going job-hopping. I guess it is very possible for people in her position–people not having too many choices– to face exploitation.
The trouble is, most domestic workers in India are either women or children, and are therefore vulnerable to abuse just by their so being. That they are also largely illiterate and untrained means that they are more or less trapped in the profession–which again increases their vulnerability.
I have never employed an underage domestic worker ( I once had a maid who would sometimes send in her fourteen year old daughter to do the work–I would always send her right back. She stopped sending her over eventually, but I think she continued to send her to other homes.) It is their plight which saddens me most of all. They are mostly just children–and they do not have the wherewithal to deal with adults or enough knowledge of the world to even realize that they are being overworked or abused.
I once knew someone who had a live-in help– a boy aged around eleven–and it bothered me a lot. In her defense she said children were more trustworthy when it came to having live-in helps–but said nothing when asked why she needed to have a live-in help at all. I am glad we lost touch.