Ever since I met these women, I've been thinking about my 'bai'.
The maid, the maidservant, the domestic 'help', the domestic worker, the kaamwali, the 'ponchhewali', the bai - the one woman we can't do without.
Yes, we... all of us.
All of us have complained about this woman. I do my share of cribbing.
She didn't turn up on time. She didn't turn up at all. She borrows money all the time. She snoops. She gossips. She's asking for clothes. She's asking for more work. She is overpaid...
Her name is Raj.
I do not have a close relationship with Raj. (She's my fourth, in a little over a year). Once in a while, she'll ask questions that I don't like answering, and my only defence is to start asking questions myself.
Where do you live? What does your husband do? How many children? The usual...
Raj tells me a story that's so familiar, I could just as easily have been talking to some other bai, in some other house, in some other city.
Husband doesn't work. She doesn't mind... if he works, he drinks; if he drinks, he spends, and beats her. Sitting at home, he's quieter.... Brother-in-law works as a painter - no regular income... Three kids. One daughter who gets fits, fevers.
The last time that happened, Raj took an advance on her salary. Since then, it's been one loan after another. For medicine. For her own landlords. For food.
Turns out, she doesn't have a shack of her own. Not even in a slum anywhere. She used to live near a slum in Nehru Place. She even had a television set, some basic furniture. She could walk to work, or take a bus for Rs 2.
Then, the slum was demolished. The television set was broken by the bulldozers. And Raj was moved far away - to some resettlement colony, where she pays rent. She tells me no house was allotted to her family. There is no question of finding work in that area - nobody can afford it. So, she spends Rs 14 every day on bus tickets. That's Rs 420 a month. If she brings her daughter along, it's twice as much.
Raj must work in at least one house just to cover the cost of her commute! She needs to work for 3 others to be able to feed five other people (she always says 'five mouths to feed', I notice, never counting herself). Recently, she lost some work (I must admit that I have no sympathy for the latest; she claims to have quit work there, because 'all sorts of girls came... who knows if the man is even married to the woman...?')
Now, my dilemma is this:
I know Raj is paid the going rate, possibly more. We are paying her twice as much as some domestic workers get paid in Bombay.... but I also know she can barely survive. On the other hand, I cannot possibly afford to pay her more. I can give her small loans and forget about them... it's less than a good cup of coffee...
but I barely make enough to survive myself.
Yet, there's this core of disquiet somewhere inside me. Surely, all workers are entitled to minimum wages? Why isn't there a minimum wage for domestic workers?
I ought to pay Raj a minimum wage... on the other hand, a minimum wage is based upon a day's work. A woman breaks stones under a hot summer sun, for 8 long hours, and only then is she entitled to Rs 70 a day, (or Rs 80 or Rs 95, depending on which state she's in).
How can I compare that to one hour of sweeping or washing clothes on alternate days?
Besides, a day-wage labourer works on a given site all day, while Raj works at 4 different houses. Maybe she does make the equivalent of a minimum wage, from all sources. Maybe more. I could only think along minimum-wage lines if she was what we call a 'live-in maid', or worked in my house from morning to evening.
There are very complex questions to contend with: How much is a fair wage?
How much should a woman be paid for sweeping one room?
What if the family lets her use a vacuum cleaner?
How much for dusting?
How much for sweeping everyday, and dusting once a week?
How much for doing a thorough spring-cleaning once a week?
Is this more difficult than the daily routine, or less?
Which is why I am terribly interested in these developments.
I am all for workers being organised and I am all for perks and benefits in addition to the basic pay. But the leaders of this union need to take a very close look at the various options open to them, before laying down their conditions. The demands seem, to me, to be paper-thin, and give rise to even more complex questions:
If I offer medical benefits - would that mean a built-in extra in the pay-package, as is the norm - or would it mean that I must reimburse medical bills for my bai and all her dependents. What if she has six children and an alcoholic husband? Am I responsible for ALL their hospital expenses?
If I allow a weekly day off (I do, incidentally), am I also allowed to cut pay when an extra day is taken as leave? What if there is a dispute? Will I have to maintain an attendence register? Will the bai sign in and sign out everyday? What if she is illiterate? Do I educate her? Is this part of my responsibility?
How much of a bonus do I give her? Based on what? If I give her a bonus, I have the right to stop giving 'baksheesh' on Diwali, and Eid, and Holi and every other festival, or don't I?
What if the bai brings her babies along? What if my house is too small to allow for kids to play about in it, without disrupting my work?
If there is no creche in my area, who is going to be responsible for the kids?
If my bai brings her daughter to work, and makes her do half the work, do I have the right to tell her off, or don't I? The daughter is hers, but the house is mine and I hired an adult, not a child. Can I accuse my bai of promoting child labour?
How can I fix 'regularised hours' when I don't work regular hours myself? If the employer leaves for work at 8 am, is it unfair to expect the domestic help to turn up at 7 am?
I think the union leaders and the workers will have to think long and hard, before formulating the rules they want for themselves, and perhaps they should allow for a certain flexibility that the running of a household requires.