Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Invisible Worker

I was born in a sleepy little village called Elapully in Palakkad and for the first 2.5 years of my life, lived a rustic unfettered existence in the care of my grandparents, looked after by a motley group of characters you’d find present in any Sathyan Anthikad drama. This group included maids and servants who had served our family for generations, shepherds, small time workers and so many others who brought joy to my first couple of years on earth.

After moving to Hyderabad later on, I became an annual visitor, spending all my summer vacations there and over a period of time, all these people were alienated from my sense of existence. They remained merely caricatures in my memory as people who had served our family for years. I had matured – my education had created insurmountable barriers between myself and these people. The class barrier suddenly became so obvious – the people who were playmates and companions in my early childhood had now become mere plebeians in my eyes.

Modern education and the economic changes in India since the 90s have broken many of the differences that arise due to vast differences in the working class. Caste is almost of no relevance in the modern age, except possibly when it comes to marriage. Religion is, of course, a much bigger thorn but as we work in a 24x7 environment, these barriers have broken and to quite an extent, office life (at least in the private sector) is bereft of too many caste and religious issues. It has created a class of people who can make money and learn to discriminate economically – the class rules roost here.

We all have maids or other servants (for want of a better word) who work 7 days a week in our houses. They do not have any PF/Gratuity and are not normally entitled to any official leaves. We do not care for them but the day they are absent, mind you, all hell breaks loose. Would you be surprised how many people do not even know the name of the people working in their houses or have any idea about their families? Now in a normal corporate scenario, that would not be a very endearing HR thought, right?

According to a study, "Invisible Servitude: An in-depth study of domestic workers in the world", by an organisation called Social Alert, there are an estimated 20 million women, children and men in domestic work in India. Of these, 92 per cent are women, girls and children, 20 per cent are under 14 years of age and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. In Mumbai alone, this study (released in March 2000) estimated that there were six lakh domestic workers of whom 80,000 are full-time (

Is the servant culture something which is against the spirit of humanity and equality? There are thousands of Indian homes where such a "servant culture" prevails – the kids grow up never picking up their clothes, never washing their clothes, never doing any work except eating, perhaps reading and definitely watching television. Aren’t we breeding a secondary class of citizens at our homes by allowing such a culture in our homes?

I think it was an article by Kalpana Sharma which made me realise that I did not know the name of my maid. I found it out but I still could not bring myself to ask her that – wouldn’t be an admission of my lack of concern for her? I know it is shameful but sometimes, we just do not realise the importance of these people who toil for us every day with no great incentive in life. After all, being employed as a menial worker or maid is not anyone’s idea of working oneself up the hierarchy.

A culture of servitude is being fostered upon each generation and it is important that parents realise that it is this upbringing that creates future class related schisms in our lives. We see a lot of youngsters working in Mumbai and elsewhere who bring home grown servants to work at their place. These are generational servants who have for years led lives where the only karma they have is working for their masters.

Servants have an invisible presence in our lives - a presence we have all learnt to take for granted. Everybody always complains about how lazy or unreliable their servants are and are very careless in passng judgements about them. In most Indian homes, servants may not eat the same food as their employers; forget the idea of even sitting together on the sofa or table. They do extensive labour and are routinely made to do extra chores for no extra pay.

Maids are excluded from labour laws – it is the informal sector and does not come under any legal scanner. The result of this exclusion is for everyone to see - long hours, bad pay, inhuman treatment, physical and sexual harassment. Since they are not even recognized as workers, there is no legal protection for them under Indian labour laws; they can only go to a criminal court.

Most of us, knowingly or inadvertently, tend to treat domestic workers as inferior beings. Many of us educated liberals have questioned this attitude in ourselves and attempted to be more democratic, but class notions are too deeply rooted in our culture to ward them off so easily. So, while we feel pained at the capitalistic society that cares two hoots for menial and blue collared workers, we remain totally oblivious to the people who work at our own place.

Unfortunately, the issue is not such a simple one – it is a fact that the haves will run the world and the have nots will have to submit to them. When the labour is in surplus and employment is limited, this remains an unrecognized industry that sustains and feeds a large number of people. But it is imperative that we also recognize the value of human life here - every human being deserves respect and it is upto us to ensure that we practice it and inculcate it in our children.

The laws alone cannot deal with this problem - constitution can only set laws but attitudes cannot be legislated. They say a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. And I dare so, we are not earning any laurels on this front!!!


  1. I do not quite agree to the statement that domestic help is against the spirit of humanity and equality. The “servant culture” does also help the needy with some extra cash. Would you prefer them working in some construction site at temperatures well above thirty five degrees, and humidity around 85%? It is not easy working under these extreme conditions; and even after working in these extreme conditions you are not sure about the fact that tomorrow you will have a job. Exploitations are pretty rampant there as well, as is every where and not just in the case of a domestic help.

    So if we were to stop this “servant culture” what alternate jobs would you provide to them. How would they sustain themselves? One of the possible options has been mentioned above, but beyond that what? Some of these options could be:

    1. Work from home – some small business: You require capital, clientele, and skills. I am not sure whether all these people would have them
    2. Work at restaurants as service waiter: I am not sure whether you see that as an option at all for women; guys can still opt for the job
    3. Rickshaw driver: Hmm what will the women do….guys can fit the role. But to get a license in Mumbai, you need to shell out Rs 80,000/-…capital is a problem again
    4. Illegal trades: Better we do not talk about it

    I do not have a lot of time with me to think about some other alternates but I am sure if I have to sit and crack my head I will figure out couple of more options. But even if I have to sit and crack my head for hours, the options would still be limited.

    I do not say that exploitation is not there in society, it is there, and it will be there. It is so the world over. But the point to note is that not all domestic help gets exploited. Yes, they do not have access to statutory leaves, but whenever they want they can opt for one. My maid is not there in town for the last 10-12 days and I have granted her that leave. She does not work for me alone, she works at 3-4 other houses, which means, apart from me all other families have also granted her leave. So people are willing to accommodate such requests.

    I have seen families aplenty who take care of the needs of their domestic servants. They provide these servants with the same food that they eat. They buy them gifts during festivals, they buy them medicines. I have seen people helping their maids to meet some financial emergencies as well. So really not all domestic servants gets exploited.

    In the very first paragraph of your note you wrote that “…group included maids & servants who had served our family for generations…” Had they been exploited do you think they would have served your family for generations? No. They feel safe, they get paid regularly and perhaps you give them the respect that makes them stay with your family for generations.

    Exploitation is what you make others do against their will. Exploitation is when you lie to people and get them to do what you want. Exploitation is when you treat them they way you would not want others to treat you. And if you are not doing any of these, I do not think all domestic maids are ill treated, I do not think they are exploited, and I do not think the so called “servant culture” is against the spirit of humanity.

  2. While I do agree the the larger scenario with regard to domestic workers is suspect and that there is certainly a lot of exploitation - of women and children, I also agree with a lot of what Chandan has said above.

    It is only the urban centres in India today that have the bhai-culture...and this person seems as replaceable as an assembly line worker. In and out of the house in a wink doing work broken down into chores like washing dishes at one time or sweeping and mopping the floor at another. In the smaller towns there is more of a symbiotic relationship, even an element of welfare support (paternalistic none the less) in tiding through things like marriages and finding jobs for the children of the workers.

    The “servant culture” such as you describe it is against the spirit of humanity, but it is also a fact that the culture is being questioned and changed. Houses where children watch TV all day and do not pick up after themselves are matched in number by those where they are taught to address and speak with respect to the domestic help and conduct themselves with responsibility.

    Like you say elsewhere, domestic help is a precious commodity in places like Kerala and in the West. The lesson that regions with more ''empowered'' (in the sense that they have more bargaining power in relation to wages and conditions of work) domestic workers offers us is that for one, domestic work is certainly not unimportant... it is very important. So wages have to reflect this fact. The ratio between the highest and lowest pay in societies can't be 1:400, or 1:4000; it has to be something like 1:4. In the capitalist societies of Western Europe where corporate-welfarism is the norm, cleaning work got 10 euros an hour in 2007. A bus driver and an asst prof just starting off both earn 3000 euros a month, have good housing, food and education for kids.

    {And a VERY SIMPLE way to get to this situation is to stop subsidising the cost of food (a very socialist strategy to keep the wages of the working class low, supposedly to aid industrial growth). If we all paid the real price of food (ecological cost and all input factors being paid for), agrarian and all other workers will get paid atleast a decent fraction of what a manager/IT person does}

    The second thing is that Women being in the workforce in large numbers removes the invisibility of the ''taken for granted'' nature of the very GENDERED domestic work, that south asian societies take for granted. That helped raise the pay for care/cleaning work...and also made it perfectly logical for men to do an equal part of work within then home, just as women do outside the home.

    ''the capitalistic society that cares two hoots for menial and blue collared workers,'' does not exist... not in the post-Keynesian era. The conditions you describe exist when there is feudal hangover in patriarchal societies where traditional markers of power and prestige just refuse to level the playing field for others. No one who owned land or belonged the middle/upper caste in a village 50 years ago is into domestic work in India today.