On Domestic Staff

“If she has a help at home, then what does she do?”

It was her tone of wonder that started me thinking about this as we came back from visiting someone, who, unlike us, had a full time help at home. As the debate about the visa, the pay, the lying and the shocking violation of diplomatic norms in the Devyani case spirals out, I hear another question rising – “Why do Indians need domestic help? Other people seem to manage fine without it.”

Sure. Other people are other people. People who grew up in India were trained and brought up in their own way. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Firstly, it is a matter of personal choice. Rather poor taste to comment on the lifestyle choices of others. And, effectively having commented on what others can afford, or how they choose to spend their earnings. Not quite on, what?

I go back to the question asked right upfront, and realise that this is not about Indians and non-Indians. It is about not being able to comprehend how the ‘others’ live. Having lived and worked both in India and abroad, I have met people in both countries who fall along the spectrum of ‘cannot survive without help’ all the way to ‘cannot abide a stranger in my house even if they help with the work’. It takes all sorts to make up this world.

Those of us who grew up in India, whether middle class or rich India, may have to acknowledge that working with our hands was never given much premium while studying and getting good marks was a priority. Many of us never learnt to multi task, never learnt to pick up after ourselves. Some of us did. But if there was a choice between washing the dishes, sharing the family chores and studying for that examination that was almost upon us, every parent knew that they were under pressure to ensure that nothing disturbed their child at work. Even today television advertisements replay this syndrome – a good child focuses on achievement, nobody glorifies – or is even seen to do any domestic work. Does that demean domestic work? Not really, but it does deprioritise it. Honestly, some of us just don’t know how to meet domestic and professional demands simultaneously. For good reason – read on.

There is just too much to do. A typical Indian household has between three and four hot meals a day. Cooked fresh. In the traditional way of doing things, the clothes are washed and put to dry by 11am, collected at 4pm, folded, ironed and put away by 5pm. The cleaning happens before and just after breakfast. And so on. A typical professional needs to be in office by 8 a.m. in most countries in the west. Shall we say, a normal commute of between half an hour an one hour? Eight to ten hours of work at middle management levels, much more if higher? Commute. Cook hot meal to be at the table by 6pm? 7pm? 8pm?

Oh, of course, children – I forgot about children. Be at work by 8, and of course drop the kids to school at the same time. Be there to pick them up at their various times, take them to their sports, dance, music lessons, be their support for their SATs and other exams, read them their bed time stories, embed good values – all while being in office  – AT THE SAME TIME – and cooking dinner and being the perfect spouse. Did I mention a social life? Indians often (used to) drop into each other’s houses unannounced. That is a hot, freshly prepared mini meal, often more complex than a dinner that must be produced on demand.

Shall we run a time and motion study on that?

How many man-hours per day does that work out to?

How many people does it take to run a household? For a household that is run like a hotel, where members are more consumers than contributors to the work, let us use the rule of thumb that hotels use.  A quick enquiry reveals the ratio is 2-4 members of staff per room, sometimes more, upto 9. If there are children, old people, guests and a modicum of comfort for all and a state of good repair for the house, then an average Indian household needs at least two members of staff.

Did I say earlier this was not just about Indians vs. not-so-India? Yes, yes, this is true all over the world. All of us need help in the house if we want to do anything other than housework. I could not be sitting and penning this right now (and I should be working on two other documents!) if my help was not preparing for lunch, or the driver had not been sent out to drop some papers off to a client’s office. Marissa Meyer would not be able to do what she does if someone did not look after her infrastructure. Nor would Bill Gates. If we are to have an egalitarian argument and say everyone should survive without domestic help just because they are physically able (‘not disabled’ said one commentator) then shall we call on the achievers of the world and ask them whether they could do it without help?

Also, please do appreciate the fact that I have not said that this is about how women are loaded with these responsibilities. (But c’mon, have we not all been to those dinner parties where the men sit and talk cricket or politics and the women help the hostess? Hand on heart!) There are these wonderful men who pick up after themselves, who vacuum the house, load the dishwasher just right (don’t tell me you haven’t had these battles!) and of course throw the garbage out without being reminded. There are women too, who manage to have the house spotless, dishes washed before the dessert is served. After a whole day’s work. Yes, singlehandedly. It is possible. There are families that pitch in and make it happen – and honestly, that is the only way to make it work if one is not to rely on domestic help. (How does one do this? I’ll have stories in another blogpost soon. Very simply – pare it back, be organised, share the load)

But why deny the domestic help their profession? They do respectable work (and I for one do not deny them their service, nor do I shy away from the wonderful word ‘servant’). Yes, I can do the work they do, and do my own work. As well as they can, maybe sometimes even better. But I do it at the cost of other work, which only I can do and they cannot. In economics we study this as the law of comparative advantage. Even if I can do both jobs, it might be sensible for me to focus on being a mother, or an investment banker or a teacher (if it paid well enough) and leave the domestic work to others. They get employment – as they choose, and at the market rate while I get to choose the things I want to do. Both of us have a better quality of life with this exchange than otherwise.

Did that answer the first question? If the domestic help does the house work, she, or he, does other stuff that adds more value. Ergo, a better world for all.

Maybe what is missing here is respect for the help. They are as much a professional as say, a government servant or a babu in a private office. A desk and a chair do not make up the man – there is as much dignity and collegiality in serving chai as in serving up that presentation. And the same amount of formality. The minute we forget this, we have slipped into an unprofessional space where poor working and living conditions or worse become possibilities. Domestic help are a resource, just as we working bees are. And each of us works to our personal and professional goals, on contract, at the best fees that we can negotiate.

Which brings us to pricing. Here we do have a problem. If wages are allocated by hour, then the assumption is equal productivity. Which may not be the case. I spoke about this differential earlier – here. It is not just in domestic wages, even IT professionals and others who work both in Indian and global markets recognise that they are paid differential rates. This then is about global equality, not just about domestic servants.

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6 thoughts on “On Domestic Staff”

  1. Good idea, when you can do better work, economically speaking, engage domestic help for petty work. Aanteladda stops short of saying, use maids to have your children, why waste time confined to bed in producing and tending those toddlers. Poo poo.

  2. I’ve been on all sides of the spectrum on this: no servants at all, with a sprawling house (we all HAD to pitch in), no help when I couldn’t afford it as a student, no help as DINKs, back to having a maid now that I have a house/family to deal with. I agree with all your points. I don’t get the angst over “OMG, they hire a maid, they can’t scrub their own toilets”! (Am also leery of the claims I see that the vast majority of desis in the US don’t have a maid, but have no stats)

    I think people saying why don’t they do their own work really have no idea of the amount of work involved – the choices are to cut back on the work to what you can deal with on your own (cook less, clean less frequently, don’t entertain at home) – or hire help. The problem is that sometimes, the choice of reducing work doesn’t exist . Not speaking to the current case, but I have friends in the IFS, in a European country. They are required to entertain, to maintain a certain standard of home, to work really long hours etc. So at that point the choice comes down to either one partner needing to give up their career to maintain the home, or hiring help.

    The issue of how the help is treated is a separate one IMO. Anecdote isn’t data, though I can tell you I know no one who mistreats their help. But of course abuses exist, in all countries. Wages too – market forces dictate wages in India among the people I know, and here too.

    1. Absolutely! Domestic servants are free workers here in India and elsewhere in the world in most normal households. They can choose to work for the wages at prevailing market rates. Families often adjust their requirements according to their affordability, trust and circumstances. So well said, M! Thanks for such a wonderful comment.

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