Sigh, you are so lucky, my NRI friends said. Now you are in India, you will have so many servants.
(Yes, servants – they serve, servants. Like those who wait on us – waiters. Nothing wrong with the word, it is an honourable job, like any other. Being in service.)
I smiled uncertainly. After decades of doing everything on my own in colder climes, this did not sound very good. A loss of personal efficiency was certain. I did have help there too – cleaning and cooking. And the occasional regular taxi driver. And drycleaning picked up and delivered to the door. If I organised it right, life ran like clockwork. I could party, and work and be the perfect wife and mother too. OK, less of the perfect wife..
There was the inevitable – this is getting me down, the I am the dhobi and I am the driver rant. Perfectly natural – not just an NRI phenomenon. All my friends who were born and brought up there too had those moments. But then we scrubbed up pretty and worked and partied hard. Life could be good. We were busting our guts to build our lives, stretching to make everything happen for all. It felt as it should. Would.
To cut a long story short, I am a Desi Mem. I have an establishment. With staff. Staff that support staff. No, not for my work (that is a different story), but for the household.
Can I survive without staff? Sure, if my mother can, so can I. But then the household I run has different service delivery levels. It is a place for respite in the working life of friends and colleagues. A place where we entertain acquaintances and ‘contacts’. A place where our dearest friends can become family for a while. Where office parties can be held, even impromptu. Where we can be glamourous, or homely – depending on how we feel that day. An establishment that is also home needs hands to do this work.
Can I do it myself? Yes, I have done so before, so I know I can. I am not a great chef, but I can cook for 30-40 people and they will not be unhappy with the range or taste. I can clean while partying, the dishes done before the dessert is served – by me solo. So many of us can do that. But not my help. They cannot.
This is why I have staff. It takes six or seven of them to do what I could do solo (at their age).
So it bothers me when people call Indian staff underpaid. They are not underpaid for the output they deliver. They are often overpaid – relative to the rest of the world. Having employed staff across countries (don’t I sound pompous there? If I do, it is because I speak with authority), I know that my help abroad could do as much cleaning in two hours as four people do in six hours here. And I could trust the former – the corners would be shining, the smells perfect, the sheets crisp. Not so here – quality checking is still something I cannot delegate (housekeeper/manager – ha!).
And yes, I have done what a trained manager would do – I have the productivity charts, I have managed the work, as I would in an office/workshop. The motivation levels are high, working conditions good, respect for their work, autonomy, job descriptions, leave agreements, hours of work, scoping, overtime, demarcation of role, back up responsibilites – all and more done. Yup, this is an HR department too. No, they don’t see the charts. We are a friendly household.
So now somebody tell me why an Indian household worker does one sixth (or even one twelfth) of a household worker in say, middle Europe and expect to be paid the same?
Oh, and the ones there never took loans from me. They did from others, but certainly not regularly. Unlike here, where to give a loan is to maintain a link, not even a lien.
One day: Professionalize domestic work.