Domestic revolutions12 min read . Updated: 10 Jun 2011, 11:00 PM IST
The maid is in the mall, bar-coded. Standing in a glass display case, she is in a spotless cotton sari, barely there make-up, buffed nails and no jewellery. She understands English and can rustle up bouillabaisse. She is holding verification papers that certify she has never kissed a lover on the terrace and has never kidnapped a baby. Her price: upwards of Rs6,000 a month.
This robot-like superwoman does not exist, definitely not for such a bargain. But middle-class households in India’s big cities—used to Rs1,000-a-month, part-time cooks—are increasingly willing to spend more money for somebody like her, a professionally groomed domestic worker. And there are companies which are opening up to meet the demand.
We are witnessing the start of a home service staff industry. Largely unorganized and often exploited, this domestic army is gradually being streamlined into a professional workforce. Until a few years ago, well-paid, trained domestic workers were employed only by wealthy expats. That is changing.
“At any given time in Delhi and Gurgaon, 60,000 people are looking for maids," says Shawn Runacres, managing director, Domesteq Service Solutions, a Delhi-based domestic staff placement and training agency, a pioneer in the still nascent industry. Headquartered at Sardar Patel Marg, the heart of the Capital’s diplomatic area, the agency was established by Runacres, a former diplomat’s wife, to assist expats with Indian household help. Three years later, in 2010, Runacres discovered that more requests for trained domestic staff were coming from Indians.
This year she branched out by setting up an office in Gurgaon, the town adjoining Delhi that is home to several multinational firms and their highly paid employees. “In Delhi, 60% of our clients are Indians," says Runacres. “In Gurgaon, they constitute 90%."
A similar model is being adopted by Partners in Prosperity, a Delhi-based NGO. “We’re trying to do a Domesteq in mid-level income neighbourhoods like Shalimar Bagh and Anand Vihar," says founder Manab Chakraborty. Started three months ago, Chakraborty’s organization is reaching out to potential workers in their villages in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. “We tie up with local NGOs and panchayats, get the women here and train them to work as maids in homes and hospitals." His NGO will go operational in August; recently, they trained eight people in a Vasant Kunj flat to test the curriculum, which included lessons in self-dignity, as well as the operation of gadgets such as microwaves and washing machines. Chakraborty plans to charge a commission from the maids’ employers.
The salaries of domestic help in India are abysmally low. A full-time maid in Kalpataru Estate, an upper middle-class apartment society in Andheri, Mumbai, gets Rs4,500 a month. The same maid would earn Rs2,500 at a flat in Vardhman Apartment Society in Mayur Vihar, Delhi. At a bungalow in Hyderabad’s upscale Jubilee Hills, a full-time maid gets Rs4,500-5,000. According to a government decree, the minimum monthly wage for unskilled workers in Delhi is Rs6,084.
The case of maids is being taken up at the highest level of policymaking. In April, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council recommended at least 15 days of paid annual leave and a minimum per diem wage of Rs115 for the 4.5 million domestic workers across the country.
“In India, many aspects of their work, including work hours for domestic workers, are not regulated," says Reiko Tsushima, senior gender specialist at the India office of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “There is also a need to regulate the placement agencies, which recruit girls from villages, promising them jobs in urban households. Many of these agencies run fly-by-night operations, with nothing more than a cellphone."
Pointing to the ministry of labour’s certificate-level skill development initiative for domestic workers, Tsushima says, “This may assure the employers that the worker is coming with some skills and also facilitate her placement in a household that is willing to pay for the appropriate skill level." The ILO is in the process of finalizing international labour standards for domestic workers, which will provide guidelines to member states to reframe legislation and policies. In April, the ILO, along with the Union ministry of labour and the Delhi government, issued smartcards (which have a USB drive storing the worker’s police verification, previous employer’s recommendation, etc.) to 450 domestic workers after training them for six months.
For reasons that cannot be held against them, the people who have honed their skills working with expats don’t want to be employed by Indians. They get used to high salaries, weekends off, annual bonuses and dignified treatment. All this, according to many maids this reporter talked to, is rare in Indian households. “Earlier, I was with Indians," says Dharma, a cook currently working for an Australian family in Gurgaon. “There was more chik-chik (cribbing) and less pay. Foreigners work by routine." In an expat home, if the dinner time is 8pm, the cook will lay the table sharp at 8. If the family is out, she will keep the food in the refrigerator and leave. In an Indian home, the cook waits till the mistress returns.
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Many Indian households have kaamwalis, the part-time maids who sweep the floor, wash the dishes, understand only the local language, are seriously underpaid and often shouted at. After years of economic growth, more and more “global Indians"—at home with both sushi and saag—are discovering that it is not okay to scream at the domestic staff, if just for the sake of pretence. Guests are impressed if the maid speaks at least a smattering of English.
“As young working Indians become increasingly exposed to the West, their mindset about domestic staff is changing," says Shalini Grover, a social researcher at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, who is conducting a comparative study of the experiences of domestic workers in expat and Indian households. “They are adjusting to the idea of giving higher pay and weekly offs to household help."
The cost of grooming
For five years, a woman from “a nearby slum" worked part-time, meaning morning and evening, in the house of Amit Gogia, a manager at a Swiss medical firm who lives with his sister and grandmother in Gurgaon. The maid was paid Rs2,000 a month. Four months ago, Gogia hired a new woman, Radha, through Domesteq, for a monthly pay of Rs6,000, the same as that of a cook in a bungalow in upper-crust Maharani Bagh, south Delhi. “The way she presents herself is worth the price," says Gogia. “Radha dresses neatly and knows etiquette. She is someone whom I can trust with my granny."
Even so, the demand for professionally trained housekeeping staff is higher in offices than in individual households. “Only 20% of our business comes from the domestic space," says Sean Blagsvedt, CEO, Babajob.com, a Bangalore-based set-up. Started to connect employers—through the Net and SMS—with maids, cooks and drivers, the website gradually expanded to providing chauffeurs, ushers and cashiers for offices. It has won awards on the way. “In the household sector, the most queries come from Bangalore’s immigrant families," says Blagsvedt. “These are young upper middle-class couples working in the international software industry and (they) are particular about getting housekeepers with a high degree of security verification."
Before being trained and placed by Domesteq, Alam Ali was an office “boy" in Gurgaon with a monthly salary of Rs6,000. Four months ago, he began as a housekeeper in a family for the same salary. “My life improved," he says. “Earlier I was working for 9 hours daily. Now I have to work for 7 hours." Ali recently got a Rs2,000 hike.
In the Indian context, the lines between nannies, cooks and housekeepers are blurry in most cities. The maid is expected to do a bit of everything, so the agencies groom an “all-rounder". Nannies, however, are in great demand in Bangalore. “In the past two years, the upper limit of their salary has jumped from Rs4,500 to Rs7,500," says Seva Mudaliyar of Care Service, an agency on Bangalore’s Old Airport Road that provides household help. The clients, almost all of them Indian, want nannies who are not merely good at massaging babies, but have knowledge of basic medicines too. They should know the chemists and clinics in the neighbourhood and must have telephone manners, especially when talking to the doctor. Mudaliyar holds half-an-hour training sessions for prospective nannies, each of whom is given printouts with dos and don’ts on clipping nails, washing saris and handling unwell infants.
The Bangalore-based Cloudnine maternity hospital has created a special MBA programme for baby care; the course’s initials stand for management of baby affairs. “With most families going nuclear and working couples living in cities far from their native towns, the traditional reliance on elders is not possible," says Rohit, the hospital’s director, who doesn’t have a last name. “We are dependent on the unorganized workforce for the caring of our newborns, so our MBA is focused on training the new mothers as well as nannies and domestic help." The charge is Rs1,500 for two people—for instance, a woman and her maid—for a 6-hour course.
A small army is already being trained for the march. Started late last year by a former CEO of Bharti Telecom, Empower Pragati gives vocational training in the formal and informal sectors, and right now, is grooming its first batch of housemaids in Delhi. “We’ve sourced people from slums," says Preetham Rodrigues, city head, operations. The 160-hour training includes lessons in health, hygiene, baby care, patient attendance, old-age care and cooking. Extra hours are allotted for the chosen specialization. Those who clear the course are also eligible for provident fund. The company is flooded with enquiries from prospective employers. It has expanded operations to Bangalore and Kolkata.
In Mumbai, the five-month-old Institute of Chauffeur Services takes one month, 18 sessions and Rs5,400 to groom drivers in good manners and personal hygiene “We give you a driver who doesn’t stink of onions in the morning," says Alam Khan, head, training and recruitment. The drivers are educated about the wisdom of shaving daily; they are told not to grease their hair with excess oil (the car will smell) and advised on how to listen properly (so as not to make a mess of instructions). A separate module is designed for building self-esteem. “Most drivers think they are good for nothing," says Khan. “We remove that misconception, building a style worthy of a chauffeur." The driver is made to look like one, complete with uniform and polished shoes.
The institute is currently training 200 drivers, most of whom are employed at the showrooms of Audi and Honda cars. “In the last five years, people have purchased high-end cars costing anything from Rs25 lakh to Rs1 crore-plus," says Amin Merchant, an investment banker who funded the institute. “The car owners have gone up in the value chain but their drivers are still Munnas and Pappus, which is a total disconnect between the employers and their car brands. We plunged into this business to groom the drivers."
Pradip M. Joshi, who is employed at an Audi showroom, is being trained at the institute. “Earlier I was a driver but now I have the competency of a chauffeur," he says. “A few months ago I was driving for a businessman and was earning Rs8,000 monthly. After this training, my market price will go up to Rs20,000 or maybe more."
The slums are a happy hunting ground for agencies looking to enlist service staff. Unlike old-money Indian households or expat homes, the working couples are inclined to take day maids, which makes it easier for the latter to commute between apartments and jhuggis.
Domesteq regularly explores the jhuggis of Delhi and Gurgaon, looking for migrants willing to work in the kothis, the desi lingo for apartments in the gated communities.
Recently, this reporter followed Sunil Kumar, the agency’s coordinator, as he made his way through the alleys of a shantytown just behind a high-rise complex in Gurgaon that houses the Microsoft, Canon and Royal Bank of Scotland offices. Stopping at a corner where women were putting coconut oil in their hair, Kumar asked, “Does anybody work here?"
“Would you like to work in a house?"
“About Rs8,000 a month."
The women started asking questions: “How many hours daily? How are the people? Will there be soshan (exploitation)?"
Of the 25 people Kumar typically talks to on such an expedition, at least five come to the agency’s office. One might agree to come for the two-day orientation class run by Domesteq. At one such session, some of the women in a group of 12 were wide-eyed at household items—one fiddled with a roll of toilet paper as if it was a museum artefact; a duster was passed around as a work of art; silver foil and apron were a puzzle; a vacuum cleaner seemed to be a missile from Mars. All the time, the tips came thick and fast from trainer James Xavier Joseph: “Keep your hair combed. Come in clean and simple clothes. The bindi must not be big. Not too much kaajal, please, nor too many bangles. Avoid long mangalsutras. Don’t dab the parting in your hair with excessive sindoor (it may fall into the curry)."
The quality of life doesn’t depend on money alone. Geeta Devi, who worked as a part-time maid in several households near her slum in Gurgaon, went through Domesteq’s two-day training early this year and was placed as a day maid at a bungalow. Her monthly salary of Rs5,000 is a little less then her previous income. “But I don’t have to rush from one home to another," says Devi. “The training helped me in knowing things that I was not aware of. Now, besides cooking and sweeping, I can take care of the baby and can even look after an old man. My employers are happy with me and I’m happy with them."
In April, Domesteq held a five-day induction session for 20 young ragpickers from west Delhi. This threw up an interesting psychological aspect. “Though they have been picking garbage all their lives, they were not comfortable with the idea of cleaning somebody else’s toilet," says Zeenu James, the trainer who conducted the classes. “I asked them what’s better: picking trash from the gutter or cleaning the water closet." She soon got her reply. All the ragpickers are now eager to switch professions. They are expected to start at the lowest salary level of Rs5,500 a month.
James, a professional chef, also holds cooking classes for maids. Paid for by employers (most of whom are Indians) who want to garnish their table with global cuisine, these classes introduce the “student" cooks to olive oil, asparagus and Thai ginger. They learn how to grate cheese and shave chocolate and sterilize vegetables. Back in their employer’s home, they faithfully recreate recipes of Madhur Jaffrey and Jamie Oliver. In the job bazaar, their price increases by Rs5,000 a month.
The market, clearly, is on the side of maids, cooks and drivers. They are becoming a reflection of the household. It’s a win-win situation. The employers get professionalism; the workers get dignity and decent pay.