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...

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About the Author

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