Thursday, February 23, 2006

Raj and my dilemmas

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.


Janaki said...

Wow!! been talking to her i see... or was today one of those where she did not turn up :)

Neela said...

well annie, here are my thoughts:

1. On the wage thing, one could calculate a per hour wage, based on (to start with) the minimum wage. One could then adjust - say if its baby care where there is more work, add 25% to it. (If thisis lower than the going wage, then the going wage should be used). It is quite easy to figure out how long she spends in your house and then pay her accordingly. Of course the catch here is that she has to get minimum wage + hours fixed in other households but you can only start with yours.

2. On baksheesh, one could regularise it. I think this is the same as bonus. So you choose (mostly Diwali) and pay them say 1 months' salary as bonus.

3. On the working hours, well whether or not you work regular hours is immaterial. The domestic help should have fixed hours, otherwise, its slave labour. Drivers often get overtime perhaps you can work something out like this. For live-in domestic help, one can set hours say they work in the morning, take a 2 hour nap in the afternon and then work till x hours at night, saturdays or sundays off etc.

4. One could work out vacation deals with them also. Just like in the organized sector. x days of casual leave (leave without notice), y days of sick leave and vacation every sunday and z days for diwali/their own festivals. In my household my mom paid for a ticket back home once a year.

5. On work ethic, I also believe that the Union should instil some sort of work ethic in domestic help to help formalize this relationship. About timing, fixed amount of leave and so on.

6. Medical bills: this is a bit tricky, since companies actually pay your dependents bills but here the dependents are huge. What about a cap say x rupees per year or per month of her medical bills that you can agree to fund? there are plenty of good low cost doctors.

7. transport costs: optional. My mom pays bus fare to the cook since the bus fare is around 5 bucks a day or something.

Needless to say, they should be allowed to have food, tea, coffee when they come to work depending on time. e.g. if your bai come sto clean, oviously she will have some chai and all that. Other things such as letting them use your ration cards are obvious no-brainers.

Over and above this, other costs are optional and based on circumstances, loyalty etc. For example, my mom lent 10k to her cook to help her build a pukka house , my mom-in-law lent some money to the dhobi, and so on. The cook pays back sometimes 50 bucks a month something nothing (she has since absconded!!) The idea is to treat people fairly within one's own circumstances.

btw, I read an excellent first person encounter about precisely this issue on IndiaTogether- I think the editor wrote of his experiences in formalizing the wages and working hours of his domestic help.

One last thing: if one does not pay domestic help fairly one has absolutely no right to demand any sort of service from them. It is a tedious job and certainly not likely to be self-motivated.


david raphael israel said...

your Frontline article is shocking.

R. said...

I don't know if this would be solved by an agreed minimum wage at all (though minimum wages is a part of the solution). The solution is of awareness of someone's rights, the knowledge of financial planning and banking reforms, yes, banking reforms.

Banks today have slowly wriggled out of their larger social responsibilities and have moved to a specific profit motive. Nothing wrong with that, but the banking system itself was created to provide a safer money transaction system for everyone in the society and the profit motive was the second objective. Now, how would you pay your Bai? By cash, right?

Instead if you paid your Bai by a cheque, she would have to bank it, where she would need an account. Managing that account would bring her more financial planning. A savings account with a credit history would help her access small loans from the bank rather than from the neighbourhood money lender who charges very high interest rates. She would also be able to access financial products that could help her save money. No one would need to spend time teaching your Bai to manage her life better, she would learn herself, if given the options.
BUT I don't think there are many banks that would want her account. Therein lies the problem. Banks want lucrative businesses, large balances etc. Services are oriented towards people who can maintain minimum balances of a particular level. I think if banking industry were to provide an alternative to the large cash only market, they need to shed this attitude and become more embedded in the society they are in.

In my personal experience in the garments manufacturing industry in south india is an example, when banks started offering salary accounts to the employees of garment factories, their savings increased, because when they were given cash, they would spend it all in a few days, money never remained. BUT banks also kill themselves in giving loans and credit cards to those they feel they can give, often creating personal bankruptsies, banks also need to be proactive in how they handle this dire social issue (thats for another day).

(apologies for the length of the comment)

Anonymous said...

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Annie Zaidi said...

jaygee: she hadn't turned up :(
neela: thanks for taking the time to write out such a detailed solution.
Based on an hourly/workload method of calculation, I pay her twice the minimum wage. Which puts my mind at rest, because it would mean I do my bit towards medical expenses etc.
However, it is imperative that he domestic workforce sticks to rules, esp when it comes to leave-taking, work-hours and not making demands for 'extras' like clothes and food. It works against their getting recognition as professionals, and reinforces their image as recipients of charity, who're being done a favour, rather than vice versa.
david: there are more shocks where that one came from, much to our collective shame
rabin: no need for apologies. you're absolutely right, in fact.

Neela said...

annie: I completely agree with you there. In fact, that's something I wonder the social service orgs who work with domestic help do not help them realise - that a more professional work ethic will be in their favor.

btw, there was an extremely interesting article on precisely this (payment to domestic workers) by the editor of indiatogether on that site. I'll try and find it.


Vijayeta said...

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See my blog for details!

oof ya! said...

hey annie...i know this is horribly out of context BUT...i am super new to this blogging thing, i would like to add you to my links section (especially your post on street harrasment) BUT I DONT KNOW HOW!!!!! show me the light...

Unknown said...

Being a largely unorganised domain, its tough to make an impact or a break through. I am quite sure that if you were to make this sector any bit more regular than it is today it would be met with firm resistance. The people involved would not welcome any change, for good or bad.


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