Every conversation among women in India turns inevitably to that perennial subject: the help. Thence follows a familiar litany of minor complaints, pet peeves and horror stories. Cue the mutual commiseration that leads to the inevitable, age-old conclusion: You just can’t get good help these days.
The conversation is essentially the same, be it among middle-class housewives, young urban professionals, aspiring socialites, or relocated expats. The tropes employed are that of war, of an army under siege, beleaguered by maids who ‘disappear’ at will; cooks who can’t make a decent sambhar; drivers who won’t work nights. The help is in many ways the enemy within: hostile, untrustworthy, potentially dangerous and yet far too necessary. ‘These people’ is often the favoured descriptor of choice.
All this bolstered by a firm conviction that the rising levels of prosperity have created a monster: the sullen, ungrateful, uppity ‘servant,’ who can never be paid enough and yet isn’t interested in doing the job he/she is being paid for.
And then every once in a while comes a reminder of the other side of the story. Underage maids beaten, even raped by their employers, living on slave wages, imprisoned in plain view in the urban home. These are not outrageous exceptions to the general rule, but signs of a growing trend of domestic help abuse.
The latest Outlook cover story, ‘The New Slaves‘, points to “a nouveau riche middle class who seem to have no empathy with the poor. In fact ‘most think that by employing a maid, they are doing some service… feeding the poor. There is a lot of aggression, anger among these people,” says social worker Rishi Kant who has helped rescue many such girls. “At some houses, the employers actually ask us why we are taking them away when they are at least being fed there….” Another activist, Rakesh Senger, adds “They think they are doing these kids a favour if they pay them Rs 1,000 a month, give them second-hand clothes and feed them scraps.”
While the main story is rife with tales of horror, primarily involving children effectively sold into modern-day slavery for a pittance, the side-bar, however, attempts to ‘balance’ the picture by acknowledging the many cases where workers “take advantage of their employers’ trust and helplessness to attack, murder and run away with family valuables.” Those worries about the mindset created by new India are not entirely unfounded: “Big city aspirations, exposure to the employer’s lifestyle which often searingly contradicts their own, anger at being refused something and revenge are the common reasons cited for domestic workers turning violent.”
The cover package in many ways exemplifies the problems in which the media covers the debate over domestic help. We in the media continually see-saw between these two polarised versions of the working poor: ruthless ingrate, one day; hapless victim, the next. (In contrast, another sidenote delineates five different kinds of employers: Abusive, Strict, Revolving door, Feudal, and Compassionate.) Neither is untrue, but a black-and-white version of reality that pits harried middle class employers against abused domestic help is not particularly helpful or accurate.
The kicker for the Outlook story, for example, aims its guns squarely at the middle class, raising the incendiary question: “What is it that makes the Indian middle class treat their domestic help with such derision?” It’s the kind of rhetoric that dials up the outrage but at the expense of nuance.
For one, the question conflates all types of domestic help, when abuse is an issue with live-in workers and not part-time. And in doing so, it conflates burning your maid with a cigarette with not allowing her to use your bathroom. One is a criminal act, while the other reveals merely an elitist bias. My TamBrahm relatives may be overly protective of the sanctity of their toilets but that doesn’t make them potential sociopaths.
And two, it fails to recognise the reality that in most major metros, adult live-in help is increasingly out of middle class reach. What makes it affordable – in Delhi, for example – is the widespread and illegal use of immigrant child labour which allows employers to hire a poor Bihari kid for a pittance and the assurance of food and shelter – i.e. dal/roti and a dank corner of the house.
Want to stop domestic help abuse? Eliminate child labour in the home. It’s not a coincidence that the victims in the horror stories documented by Outlook are overwhelmingly young and female. Adults and teenage boys can and will flee at the first sign of abuse. Young girls are far too frightened to do so.
Are there problems with the Indian attitudes toward domestic help? Yes. But those attitudes lead to actual abuse only when they are allowed unrestrained expression, when young, defenseless children are placed in the care of those who do not see them as entirely human. What we need is an aggressive and carefully directed intervention that cracks down on this socially acceptable form of child trafficking – from the touts to the agencies to the employers.
And here’s something the rest of us can do: make the ‘child servant’ socially unacceptable, to actively shame our acquaintances, colleagues, relatives and friends who hire a child to clean their house, iron their clothes, cook their meals. Let’s not shirk our responsibility by pointing fingers at others.
As for that ugly Indian mindset, we can either embrace change or have it forced upon us. The days of obedient, loyal help are long behind us. Just like IT professionals in the boom days, good domestic workers know that they are a prized commodity. There will always be a better job or better salary round the corner. Don’t expect them to stick around if you don’t pay or treat them well. And they may still leave even if you do – it’s called the free market.
We’re heading for a future where help will be more expensive and – here’s the good news for some – more professional. Think once-a-week cleaning companies, catering outfits, and nanny agencies that guarantee quality service. Safe, reliable, and pricey. The rest of us will just have to sweep our own floors.