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The goddess of small things

The goddess of small things
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First Published: Fri, Jun 10 2011. 10 32 AM IST

Help’s at hand: Domesteq, a placement and training agency in Delhi. Pradeep gaur/Mint
Help’s at hand: Domesteq, a placement and training agency in Delhi. Pradeep gaur/Mint
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 02 10 PM IST
When my cook-nanny took a couple of months off recently to blow up her life savings on her son’s wedding, I tapped my brand new mommy network for some substitute help. She showed up one day at my door, nicely clad in seemingly clashing prints, matched with the ease of a Sabyasachi.
She was English spoken, a queen of babysong, a goddess of pumpkin soup and momos. She worked for Europeans who were on holiday but who didn’t mind her earning some extra money while they were away. One day when I was particularly crotchety (euphemism), she waited until the storm had passed, then raised one eyebrow and said, “Looks like you had a really bad night.” In short, she could kick my butt too.
A few weeks into the job, she decided I wasn’t so bad. She told me she would find me a full-time nanny for Babyjaan. One day I overheard a phone conversation with a potential hire. Their chat ended with this reassuring clincher: “They are like foreigners only. Same systems, same attitudes.”
Help’s at hand: Domesteq, a placement and training agency in Delhi. Pradeep gaur/Mint
Why should a New India born, upwardly mobile urban family treat its employees any different from the out-of-town neighbours? Yet many domestic workers who have worked with expatriate families say they are reluctant to be employed by Indians. Of course there are exceptions but, usually, in the former household the hours are more structured, the salary and perks are better, the employers’ vocabulary includes Please, Thank You, and Most Grateful. Most important, there is greater respect for their work, acknowledgement that what they do is Real Work that improves the quality of their employers’ lives.
When I flash back on all the women who’ve worked for us in the past decade as the husband and me tripped through cities and apartments—Radha, Savita, Nirmala, Shruti, Natalie, Asha, Shashi, Sameena, Sushma—three commonalities come immediately to mind. They all carried their blinding smiles to work every morning. They all had standard-issue brutal lives. They all (well most of them anyway) made our lives easier.
Last month I heard three stories about the private lives of domestic workers. Of a girl who attempted to kill herself because the man she loved married someone else. Of a slip of a woman who had her fifth abortion. Of a wife who was hit hard on the head with a brick because she attempted to intervene in a fight between her husband and a neighbour. You’ve all heard similar stories, I’m sure.
Of course it’s not all bleak. Domestic workers are getting more policy attention than ever before. Health insurance, minimum wages, smart cards are all in the works for an industry that’s increasingly being recognized as workers who provide essential services and not just help in the house.
A draft study conducted in West Bengal by the International Labour Organization wanted to investigate whether this kind of employment empowers migrant domestic workers or whether it just ends up being another form of slavery. Apparently, domestic workers are doing the best they can with the opportunities they have to improve their lives and, many often utilize their regular incomes to buy a house— although, in true it-happens-only-in-India style, several women then end up registering the house in their husband’s name!
According to official estimates there are 4.75 million domestic workers in India; three million of these are women who work in urban areas. Most independent studies indicate that this number is a gross underestimation and there could actually be 20-80 million domestic workers.
As this underpaid and overworked group works hard to push their children into Better India, we really are their biggest anchors. We can no longer shrug off our responsibility by paying them a salary that’s a little higher than market. We have to be active participants in improving their lives. After all, they spend all their time improving ours.
How are the lives of domestic workers changing in New India? Read our cover story on Pages 9-11.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jun 10 2011. 10 32 AM IST