Friday, September 11, 2009

Domestic Help

India's upper and middle class homes (mine included) keep running because of the efforts of domestic workers. 

On the days when they do not show up, our lives come to a screeching halt. We seem to spend the entire day in the kitchen - and when we emerge, it is only to wash clothes or sweep the floors. There are no dishwashers and very few vacuum cleaners in India (though you know I now have one - after 28 years here!). Although most of my friends have washing machines, I don't know anyone who has a dryer. Convenience foods are rare, but in homes like mine, where elderly people abound, regular meals are still expected three times a day: parathas, lassi, fruit and porridge in the morning; dal, subzi, dahi and roti at lunch and dinner.

We depend upon domestic workers to keep us from being slaves to the house. Without them, we would be run ragged: forced to rise at 4:30 or 5 just to accomplish the day's tasks before going off to our "real" jobs outside the home. Many of us would have to give up those outside jobs without them - elderly people and small children can't be left alone at home, just for starters. Life would be come a drudgery, in which we would drag through the day keeping just one step ahead of impending chaos. 

So we depend upon them. Most of us, however, don't want to pay them in proportion to their meaning in our lives. We can't function without them, yet we are willing to pay more for an evening out at a fancy restaurant than we do for their monthly salary; more for a trip to the hairdresser, more for a new outfit. It actually makes no sense at all.

Except for the fact that they allow us to do it.

I spent all day today at Astitva, a women's organization for which I am on the Governing Body. One of their projects is with Domestic Workers and after hearing about it in theory from the case worker who runs it, we were invited to go out to the field to see for ourselves first-hand who these women are and what stories they had to share. 

The area is called Deep Nagar and Astitva has been working there for a year now. The women who were assembled to meet us were an interesting collection - some hard-bitten, tough and cynical; others just arrived from other states, still unsure of the way things work here and held in some contempt by the old hands.                                 
The new women, desperate for work, are willing to take jobs at throw-away rates while those who have been in business for years won't settle for anything less than the price they have agreed is fair.

But in fact, neither rate makes sense - even the tough cookies are selling themselves too cheap. The upper classes cannot do without the services these women have to offer, yet the buyer is calling the shots. 

What I like about Astitva's approach is that they are not only inculcating a sense of worth and self-esteem and an awareness of their right to a fair wage among these women- they are also helping them to start thinking and acting like professionals. Simple things like negotiating a contract before agreeing to take a job - asking about days off, the exact nature of the job and the pay to be expected if extra work is requested . . . for many women, before Astitva, such basic clarifications seemed like too much to ask.

Without such an approach, the results are predictable: exploitation, plain and simple. At the meeting I attended, one woman told how her employer had withheld her entire month's wages because on the last day of the month, she had broken a glass. Another related how she could never take a day off as her due - she always had to beg for it and then listen to the employer's resentful complaining. Yet another shared how when she had missed two days work because her daughter was sick, she returned to find that another woman had been hired in her place.

Listening to their stories, however, the Astitva team did not just murmur sympathetically or start trashing the employers. "Did you offer to pay for the glass?" "Did you discuss days off before taking the job?" "Did you call to say you couldn't come in and explain why?" For women used to seeing themselves as victims, this is a new approach. 

I know a few "Cleaning Ladies" in the US. They are proud professionals and they only take the jobs that suit them. They charge by the hour and they demand what they deserve. They have set days and they arrive precisely on-time. They bring their own cleaning supplies and sell them to their clients. When they arrive, the families they work for disappear, so as not to disturb them while they work. They are impeccably honest. They drive their own cars.

The best part? Many of their clients - my sister and sister-in-law among them - "pre-clean" their houses the day before they arrive because they don't want to be seen as sloppy or dirty to the cleaning lady. 

It didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen without a lot of work, particularly by cleaning ladies themselves. But it happened. It can happen again.

No comments: