Manu Joseph: Why the super-rich and we pay the same for house help

The prosecution said the Hindujas paid the staff about $8 a day and that their work-days could be as long as 18 hours.  (AFP)
The prosecution said the Hindujas paid the staff about $8 a day and that their work-days could be as long as 18 hours. (AFP)


  • The Hinduja family case has revived this question. It’s worth noting that even humane writers who moved our souls had servants who were not paid more than market rates.

Some things that my relatives do every day are crimes in Europe. I was reminded of it when news broke that four members of the billionaire Hinduja family were held guilty by a Swiss court of treating their house staff badly, though the family rejected the charges and have reportedly appealed against the ruling. 

Like many wealthy people of Indian origin, and some diplomats, they had got house-help from India on pay scales that are generous by Indian standards but illegal in Europe. The prosecution said the Hindujas paid the staff about $8 a day and that their work-days could be as long as 18 hours. 

The prosecution also alleged that family had “confiscated" their passports, which is a dramatic way of describing what I gather is a common practice. The accusations are a few years old. They returned to the news after a financial settlement was reached with the staff members but the prosecution pressed criminal charges.

It is likely that the Indian upper class sees all this as excessive because many of them, too, make poor people work for more than 12 hours on less than $8 a day. In their defence, they would say that the cost of living in India is a few times lower than in Europe, so what household staff members are paid in India is not as bad as it sounds.

Also read: Hinduja family spent more on pet dog than a servant’s salary, says Swiss prosecutor

A prosecutor said that the family had spent almost $10,000 a year on their dog, while paying low wages to their human staff. This could be true even in a typical upper middle-class Indian household. They may want to point out, though they would never do so in public, that do-gooders have a bad habit of comparing how much a family spends on their dog with how much they pay their domestic workers. The comparison is absurd. A dog brings a lot of joy to the family, and is even seen as a part of the family, unlike an employee.

The family did not deny the low pay, but said that the long hours’ part was an exaggeration. They asked, as my neighbours would, that if a house-help watches a film at home with the children, is that work? Maybe it depends on the film in question. Also instructive would be whether the family’s law firm would bill the two hours (or more) its lawyers would take if they watched the same film to ascertain whether the viewing was entertainment or work.

The Hindujas also pointed out that their domestic staff’s compensation was not just the cash they received, but also accommodation and food. That is exactly what my relatives, too, would say. ‘Accommodation’ in an Indian household is usually a room that appears to be purposely impoverished. In my colony, for instance, the default ‘servant quarters’ is a windowless room fit for suitcases.

As a boy growing up in Madras, the most fascinating thing I heard about the world outside was that in the US, garbage cleaners would come in cars to clean the streets. That remains, till date, the most impressive thing I have ever heard about wealth. I eventually realized that the information, in word and spirit, was a bit of an exaggeration. But the idea stuck that the best measure of a nation’s wealth is the standard of living of its poor. Ideally, there should be a similar measure of an individual’s wealth.

“How rich is that guy?"

“Oh, he pays his driver a lakh."

I really did think in my 20s that was how the world worked.

The rich are willing to talk about how much they spend on cars and carpets and homes. Wouldn’t it be just as interesting to know how much the super-rich spend on their servants?

Also read: The visual poverty of India’s rich has only gotten worse

For some reason, you can get to know a lot of obscure things that the rich spend on, but never what they spend on their staff. That is because most rich people pay only as much as what the middle class pays their household staff. 

My colony probably has the per capita income of Switzerland, but it pays domestic workers half of Europe’s minimum wage. I am not lamenting this. After all, I too pay my cleaner 5,000 a month for getting into acrobatic positions to clean for an hour every day, and a cook only around the same for working 90 minutes daily on meals.

The rich keep talking about how they subsidize the poor. They do. But it is also a fact that the poor subsidize our lifestyles by supplying labour cheaper than in much of the world. Also, every strata of Indian society subsidizes the lifestyle of the strata above by working for exploitatively low wages. And in the end, we have a situation where Indian billionaires probably pay only as much as I do for domestic work.

No household can be impressive when it comes to the matter of paying its domestic staff. Historically, all the famously humane writers who moved our souls through prose had servants who were probably not paid more than market rates. Merchants and conscience-keepers paid their servants just about the same. Even if some people pay a bit more, it cannot be an impressive sum when spoken out aloud, especially if compared with the incomes of famous humanitarians.

Also read: Why your domestic help must have insurance

What are the consequence of the Hinduja family case? The wages of migrants won’t rise; instead, wealthy Indian families living abroad may stop taking domestic workers from India, fearing trouble, ending a way of enriching poor Indian families. And wealthy Indian families in the West would have to hire local help, which must be a bit uncomfortable because those workers have such swag and that always diminishes the experience of being a master.

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