SOME TIME AGO in our middle-class housing society, we began to find a small pile of new laid shit on the terrace every now and again. Keen detective work revealed the brutal fact that the perpetrator was the scared young girl working as a maid with a neighbour, who was not allowed to use the toilet there.
Consider now the following information. In the first all- India survey of non-unionised female sex workers conducted recently, 71 percent said they had moved voluntarily to sex work after having found other kinds of work to be more arduous and ill-paid. The largest category of prior work was that of domestic workers. In other words, a large number of women in the sample had found being a domestic servant to be more demeaning, exhausting and ill-paid than sex work. For the middle-class employers of ‘maids’ in whose imagination becoming a prostitute is the fate worse than death, this fact should produce a shaming moment of self-reflection.
There’s nothing demeaning about cleaning up other people’s homes or cooking for them for a wage; could be just another job. But it’s not, is it? Especially not in India. Here the work has the worst aspects of both feudalism and capitalism.
The callousness of the Indian middle-classes towards their ‘servants’ outdoes the worst excesses of feudalism. The polite term ‘domestic help’ that has replaced the word ‘servant’ in public usage is perniciously misleading. Make no mistake — these are servants. They are treated as less than human, less than pet animals. Apart from facing physical and sexual abuse which is common, domestic workers perform heavy unrelenting toil, for they have no specific work hours if live-in; no days off or yearly vacations if part-time.
Not to mention the routine humiliation that is their due. Several times now, I have noticed in restaurants in Delhi the truly appalling sight of young women who are clearly maids in charge of toddlers, standing throughout the meal their employers consume and not being offered so much as a glass of water. One such young trendy couple could easily have been students in the US, where if they ever undertook babysitting to meet expenses, they would expect to be treated with dignity as employees, nothing less. This disdain towards those who perform essential manual labour is deeply casteist and a fundamental part of the psyche of the Indian middle classes.
Now, the feudal family servant could at least expect to be broadly looked after in times of need, but the modern servant can at best expect small loans for personal emergencies, to be deducted from the pittance they are paid. On the other hand, a capitalist work contract could be more dignified than a feudal situation — two parties mutually deciding terms. It can also be more alienating than the generations-old feudal bond, with no human relationship beyond the lines of the contract, but at least in principle, it is more equal. But the Indian servant knows neither the safety net of the feudal servitor nor the formal equality of the capitalist contract; at the same time s/he bears both the humiliation of the feudal hierarchy and the cold exploitation of capitalism.
THE CRISIS in many Indian cities, and in states like Kerala with better paid work in other sectors, is that domestic servants have become hard to come by. Domestic labour has become the least preferred option among manual labour jobs. Hence perhaps, the recent spate of articles in English language journals holding forth in those witty pieces and concerned interview-based articles, on the eccentricities of individual maids, the difficulties of finding a ‘good’ maid or nanny, the fact that it has become a ‘sellers’ market.
With whom are there never any interviews? Maids.
Story after story on this sector, and not a squeak from a real maid. There she is, in a photograph accompanying the article, on her knees, swabbing the floor; or in a saucy cartoon, waving her broom, but what does she have to say? We don’t know.
Some years ago, a small item in the Delhi edition of a national daily reported that the domestic servant of an additional sessions judge hanged herself to death. It stated that finding some valuables missing, the judge called the maid from her jhuggi and questioned her in his sister’s flat. Saying that she would be back soon, she left. Later her body was found on the seventh floor of an office building in the neighbourhood of the judge’s house. The report ends, “The police suspect that the domestic help committed suicide as she felt guilty of having stolen valuables from her employer’s house.”
Is there something wrong with this picture? There is one dead woman and one living employer who was the last to see her alive. But all we are given is the employer’s version of the background. No corroborating interviews. Instead the story is told in a series of factual statements. It’s so plausible after all — everyone knows that all servants are thieves, actual or potential.
Some other people missing in those articles about servants — men. The usual interviewees are people called ‘working women’ — that is, they are paid to work outside the home. And because they do, they cannot perform their real work of looking after the home and children without pay. So they must pay other women (and sometimes men) to do this work. But their husbands, fathers of all those children, have nothing to do with all of this — they have a life to get on with. And so the heartbreaking stories — I had to ask the driver to babysit because I couldn’t miss an important meeting, I had to miss an important meeting because the nanny didn’t turn up.
Meanwhile, the bearers of sperm never miss a meeting — howsoever trivial. Then you suddenly also get why employers don’t want to hire women (except to look after their children) — women have servant problems.
Recently, a couple of successful corporate women wrote about the need to treat maids as employees, pay them well, treat them with dignity, give them the perks you would expect as an employee yourself. If you don’t do this, they warn, be prepared to be less than efficient at your own job. Because your husband ain’t going to get involved ever. Get used to it.
If this is the case, then the salary paid to any employee includes a hidden element — the cost of this labour; whether paid for, or performed unpaid by the wife. For that employee could not go back to work every day if this labour remained undone. And there would be no one to work at all in the long run if no children were being brought into adulthood. It’s what we feminists have muttered behind our beards for a long, long time — the very premise of the capitalist system is the unpaid labour of women. Dammit.
But even the most radically restructured middle-class household, non-patriarchal, queer and/or feminist, still could do with someone to clean up around it. The point is the person need not be a ‘servant’. S/he could be your employee the way you are someone’s employee.
Can one ‘be friends’ with the person who does one’s household work for a wage? Only under extraordinary circumstances. The power equation is way too unbalanced, the poverty of one party too glaring. Whatever form the relationship takes, its direction is controlled by the middle- class employer. Not a friendship then, but there could be mutual caring.
The National Advisory Council recently suggested that domestic servants should be brought under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act and other regulations such as an eight-hour working day, paid leave and maternity benefits. This is a welcome initiative. However, it still locates the work of child-care within the individual home, and leaves the maid at the mercy of the individual employer.
Why not legislation that makes day-care for children the responsibility of the employing institution? Then the child-minders would be employees of the company or of the government, it would generate employment, increase productivity and children would be close to their parents.
But hey, what about the children of the child-minders and maids? Ah, that’s the problem with being a feminist — the questions, they keep on coming.
Menon teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi