The Help

Will India’s Domestic Workers Demand What They Deserve?

India’s upper- and middle-class homes (mine included) are kept running by the efforts of domestic workers.

On the days these workers do not show up for some reason, our lives come to a screeching halt. We seem to spend the entire day in the kitchen—and when we emerge, it is only to wash clothes or sweep the floors. There are no dishwashers and very few vacuum cleaners in India. Although most of my friends have washing machines to do the laundry, I don’t know a single soul who has a dryer. Convenience foods are rare, but in homes like mine, where elderly people abound, regular meals are still expected three times a day: parathas, lassi, fruit, and porridge in the morning; dal, subzi, dahi, and roti at lunch and dinner.

We depend on domestic workers to keep us from being slaves to the house. Without them, we would be run ragged: forced to rise at 4:30 or 5:00 just to accomplish the day’s tasks before going off to our “real” jobs outside the home. Without such help, many of us would have to give up those outside jobs—elderly people and small children can’t be left alone at home, just for starters. Life would become a drudgery, in which we would drag through the day keeping just one step ahead of impending chaos.

Still, most of us don’t want to pay domestic workers in proportion to their real value in our lives. We can’t function without them, yet we are willing to spend more for an evening at a fancy restaurant or for a trip to the hairdresser or for a new outfit than for their entire monthly salary. It makes no sense at all. Except that they allow us to do it.

I recently spent a day at Astitva, a women’s organization here in Dehradun on whose governing body I serve. (The name means “identity.”) A caseworker told us about a program she runs for domestic workers, designed to improve their situation. She then invited us to go into the field to meet some of the women and hear their stories.

The area where they live is called Deep Nagar, and Astitva has been working there for a year now. The women who assembled to meet us were an interesting group—some hard-bitten, tough, and cynical; others just arrived from villages in other states, still unsure of the way things work here and held in some contempt by the old hands.

These new women, desperate for work, are willing to take jobs at throwaway rates, while those who have been in business for years won’t settle for anything less than the price they have agreed to. But in fact, neither rate is fair: even the tough cookies are selling their work too cheaply. The upper classes simply cannot do without the services these women have to offer, yet the buyers continue to call all the shots.

This perpetuates a system of discrimination and class distinction that would be unbelievable—were it not so prevalent. There are many homes where separate utensils are still kept for the servants, as if even soap and water could not remove their germs. They are never introduced when company comes, but remain in the background—as if they do not exist.

What I like about Astitva’s approach is that it not only inculcates a sense of worth, self-esteem, and awareness of these women’s right to a fair wage and to decent working conditions, but it also helps them start to think and act like professionals. Simple things most of us would take for granted—like negotiating a contract before agreeing to take a job, asking about days off, agreeing on the exact nature of the job and the pay to be expected for extra work—were too much for these women to ask for before Astitva.

Without Astitva’s approach, the result is predictable: exploitation, plain and simple. At the meeting I attended, one woman said her employer had once withheld her entire month’s wages because she had broken a glass on the last day of the month. Another related how she could never take a day off—not a single day. She always had to beg for one and then listen to her employer’s resentful complaining. Another said that when she had missed two days of work because her daughter was sick, she returned to find that another woman had been permanently hired in her place.

Listening to these stories, the Astitva team did not murmur sympathetically or trash the employers. Instead, they asked questions: Did you offer to pay for the glass? Did you discuss days off before taking the job? Did you call to say you couldn’t come in and explain why? For women used to seeing themselves as victims, this was a new approach.

I know a few cleaning ladies in the United States. They are proud professionals. They take only the jobs that suit them, charge by the hour, and demand their due. They have set days and they arrive precisely on time. They bring their own cleaning supplies and sell them to their clients. When they arrive, the families they work for disappear, so as not to disturb them while they work. They are impeccably honest. They carry cell phones and drive their own cars.

The best part? Many of their clients—I know from personal stories—“preclean” their houses the day before because they don’t want to be seen as sloppy or dirty by the cleaning lady.

This arrangement didn’t happen overnight. And it didn’t happen without a lot of work on the part of the cleaning ladies themselves. But it did happen in the States, and it can happen in India.

Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

Also by this author
Above the Law, Beneath Contempt

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