Domestic help crisis and the perspective divide! Jan 11, 2012

Its a pet peeve…. servants! A few years ago, the trend was to criticize servants–they didn’t work hard enough, wanted too much money, they answered back, they weren’t honest, not loyal, etc etc. This sort of conversation was commonplace. But now, the trend has shifted to discussing the availability of domestic help. If someone has a servant who looks reasonably reliable and efficient, they are the object of fierce envy, getting constantly plagued by questions about how the help was sourced, how much are they paid, etc.

People who form the supply of the domestic workforce segment are usually migrants. Mostly women, they are wives and daughters of men who have made the journey into the city to work on construction sites, shops, offices, factories, etc. I have often observed that the women who do domestic work have the more stable, assured jobs and the menfolk wander from job to job, with income-less periods between these stints.

It’s an uncertain life on both sides of the picture. The employer who waits anxiously every morning for the domestic worker (cook, cleaner, baby sitter…) to turn up on one hand; and the worker who comes to work each day preoccupied with worries about her jhuggi burning or being bulldozed, someone robbing the tenement while they are at work, the kids getting sick or hurt, the menfolk losing their jobs or not getting paid, the price of rice, etc, on the other.

A few days ago, I caught my help (she stays with us through the day and returns to her parents at night) opening my wallet. She hadn’t stolen anything, was just staring at the money! Of course I reprimanded her, tried to explain that losing her honesty is not worth the money she would have stolen…all the stuff about reputation, trust, etc. She went home and confessed to her father, was even beaten for what she did!

This morning, when my mother in law had to leave town urgently, leaving me alone with the kids, this girl didn’t turn up for work despite knowing that we were in a tight situation. I was upset. For all the understanding and support we have given their family in times of need, I was aghast at the lack of gratitude or at least honesty in sending a message about her non-availability for work!

These two issues- trust and communication- are recurring themes in our interaction with domestic help. I’ve had the best and worst of experiences (haven’t we all!), but I do see that the problems exist on both sides. Huge cultural differences and a general sense of exploitation on both sides breed an environment of mistrust (or at best wariness). This is further exacerbated by a communication breakdown owing to language barriers and huge differences in perception about what the possible outcome of the communication will be? I have had umpteen maids up and leave because they are not confident about talking their problems though. Sometimes I have come to know later that the reasons were as minor as wanting warm water for bathing or rice instead of roti! I find myself wondering if I come across as a crazy brute that would deny someone these? But I realize that their attitude comes out of personal experiences with a previous employer or worse, from a general ingrained perception that employers are not sympathetic to the needs of domestic help!

Anyway, I had to act about today’s maid-less situation! I decided to visit her home. Asking around, I reached their dwelling, found her there, appealed to her humane side (was hoping fervently there was one!), asked her to pack her things and stay with me till my mom in law returns because I can’t manage without her, etc etc. All the way to her house, my mind was planning threats, abuses and other forms of aggression. When I saw the bare bone room in which the family of five lived, I didn’t have it in me to shout. I stated my case instead and asked her to be reasonable about things, promising to sort out her issues, if any. I was clearly the beggar, not the chooser and standing in that courtyard with the neighbors peering at us, little kids crawling around the floor, I felt very, very calm after a morning of craziness, uncertainty, helplessness and rage!

Let’s face it! The domestic help situation is going to continue to change dramatically. The demand is great, but willingness to pay for services is still low. On the supply side, fewer people are willing to work as domestic servants. Those who end up doing the work are unskilled or semi-skilled, not deserving the higher wages perhaps. Rising cost of living creates an endless cycle of higher expectations in terms of the pay scales, while the lack of training and subsequent inability to provide better service ensures the market is trapped in a frustrating low value cycle. How we can break out of this cycle, I have no clue! For now, I am glad my children are growing up and my dependence on domestic help is getting lower day by day. On the other hand, I worry about where we will get the support to look after older people- first grandparents and later, parents!

As I worry, I hope to continue working on enhancing the trust and the communication with those who work for (and with) me!








About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on January 11, 2012, in Urban Planning & Policy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Coincidentally, I was thinking of domestic help and the resulting conflicts that arise with them accessing two very different worlds, wondering if ever these would merge or like the universe continue to diverge.

  2. it is diverging before our eyes in a very scary fashion; cannot really blame the very esoteric behavior on their part at times. meanwhile, as incomes rise across the board, some families are bridging the divide in small ways, paying more attention to educating their children, buying electronics, other lifestyle changes like eating habits….among these, i do see people who gain self-respect, learn to communicate better, become more confident and can have a relationship of mutual respect with their employers. its good to see, but rare!

    • I agree that they (particularly women) are getting more empowered. My mom has over the years helped two girls, who used to tag along their mothers/granny doing chores, into becoming self reliant and confident adults. One of them took their employers to the police for abuse. I must say my mom was very proud of her. She now provides beautician services to women in my parents neighborhood.

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