This column is about the household help. Servants, maids, staff, call them what you will. Servant problems are ubiquitous not only in India but everywhere. One elderly lady I know routinely refuses invitations—to family weddings and births—citing “servant problems”. Whether it is an excuse or genuine, only she knows, but I suspect the latter. I have sat at soirées in Mumbai, Manhattan and Singapore where ladies flaunting Cartier watches, Kelly bags and Kasliwal solitaires complained ad nauseum about servants. Get a life, I felt like telling them, except that I am no exception. I too vent about my servants, usually to my brother. His response, to this and my other complaints, is the same: “Eat more fibre.”
Hands-on: Abroad, it’s much more professional.
I didn’t have servants for years in the US. But that was before I had children. Once the babies arrived, I got off my high horse about Gandhian self-sufficiency and Marxist equality of classes very quickly. In Manhattan, the going rate for nannies started at $400 (around Rs18,850) a week. My nanny, Chokpa, a Nepali who lived in Queens, occasionally mentioned missing her husband and daughter but kept her distance. In England, housekeepers are as professional as plumbers, accountants or lawyers. Or not. Choice of job doesn’t reduce dignity of labour. In Singapore, maids undergo a full medical check-up, including an AIDS test. I had to pay the government a “levy” of S$265 per month (around Rs8,670), which was sort of like minimum wage. The expectation was that you would pay your maid at least that much as salary. Most people paid more—S$300-600 per month.
India is a wild card; a game changer. Servant wages are all over the map, depending on city and locality. One commonality is how little maids are paid relative to the household income. My neighbour has an enviable diamond collection but thinks twice about paying the maid Rs3,000 versus Rs2,500 per month. We underpay our servants, even though they are essential to our lives—more essential than, say, our husbands. As proof, I point to the panic that women undergo when their maids don’t show up.
It is not just the salary. While throwing money at this problem does help, it doesn’t solve all servant crises. Consider my own. Last week, my maid said she wanted to go from working full days to half days. I was shocked, devastated even. You know, I need you till 5pm, I said. How can I let you go at 1pm? I’ll pay you more, I offered. Double your salary. I’ll cut your wage in half if you work half days, I threatened. I cajoled and pleaded. Finally, my maid spoke. You know, last week, my sons and I were preparing to consume poison, she said. My husband has started drinking again. My sons are failing in school. My sister’s son ran away and we haven’t seen him for 15 years. I don’t want that to happen to my boys. So I want to pick them up from school at 2pm, which is why I need to leave at 1pm.
To every HR professional out there, I want to ask: How do you negotiate in a situation like this? How do you make this a win-win for both parties?
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
In India, the women (and they are largely women) who come into our homes to work have problems that are hard to fathom, let alone negotiate around. The lady who works in my friend’s house had a husband who was set on fire by his own mother. He died. She needs a new house and an advance of Rs50,000 after two months of work. Should my friend give or not?
Bharti Aunty is my Bangalore guru in matters of home. Daughter of the late great C.S. Venkatachar and mother of my friend, Gauri, Bharti Aunty is who I call for advice on matters ranging from pest control to crafts shops. Her maid, Kamlamma, has been with her for 45 years. I wanted to know why and how.
Let me insert a disclaimer here. Whenever I include friends in this column, I feel a pang of disquiet. As journalists, we are taught to value objectivity above all. Writing about someone you know is seen as a conflict of interest. Columnists are given a little more leeway, but I still think twice before including anyone I know—and then feel the need to explain myself. So, here goes. In an ideal world, would I have found a stranger who was successful at managing servants as a source for this column? Yes. Does my deadline permit such a search? No. Is Bharti Aunty getting something out of being included here? No. Moral of the story: If you want your name in this column, don’t be my friend.
Bharti Aunty was wise and soothing when I asked her for tips on how to manage help. She also didn’t have a solution. “I think Kamlamma has an affection and loyalty that existed in those days and doesn’t seem to exist in the new breed of servants,” she said.
I considered calling my friend who obsesses—and helps set policy—on labour reform and ask him for a solution for the nation’s servant problems. But given what I have just said, I can’t. My own take is that the chasm between servants and their employers—in means, circumstances, lifestyle and mindset—has to be bridged. I don’t mean paying our servants more or educating them, although that will certainly help. I mean the reverse. Educating and sensitizing the employers to the plight of servants and imbuing the maids with self-esteem so they don’t have to resort to lying to get their way. Only when there is dignity of labour, only when the “staff” see themselves as professionals can negotiation begin. Until then, we working women who employ other working women are doomed to guilt, bitterness and cynicism.
Shoba Narayan’s maid works half days now. For about the same pay. She wants to learn to negotiate better with her help. Write to Shoba at firstname.lastname@example.org