Sunday, 3 July 2011

Kyon nahin aaya kal ? (Why didn't you come yesterday ?)

Consider the following employee employer relationship. The post is set in an Indian context, but it could be true of virtually any developing country.

There is no written contract of employment. The worker is paid below that statutory minimum wage. There is no Provident Fund or Employee State Insurance, both of which are statutorily mandated in India. There is no paid leave. Most often, there is no weekly off. Child labour is acceptable. Physical abuse is not unknown. Sexual abuse is ,alas, not rare. Verbal abuse is often. There is no training for the job. There are no rest breaks. The job is monotonous, repetitive, and physically taxing. There is hardly a word of praise or feedback. Biting criticism from the employer is a daily affair.

The workers absent themselves at the drop of a hat. Attrition is enormous; the worker often just absconds or runs away. Coming on time is an alien concept. The worker tries her best to finish faster and with as less effort as possible - quality be damned. 

The employer is usually a lady - ninety percent of the time. She fervently believes that she is the fairest employer of all and all this unsavoury labour practices, which she incidentally tch tches at,  are done by other amazons , not her. And look at how ungrateful her employee is - she bunked today. The beauty is that the employer cannot do without the employee. And yet, such is the treatment.

The employee is also usually a lady - ninety nine percent of the time.  In her opinion, she is the very epitome of decency and hard work and her employer is the perfect example of a Rakshasi (demon).

This is a gigantic industry. There are an estimated 50 m workers in this category globally - some 10m in India and probably an equal number in China. They are to be found all over the developing world. Minus this industry, half the countries in the world would come to a grinding halt.

You would have thought that in such a situation, there would be huge improvements and advancements. Lots of innovation, technology, good practices, corporotisation, etc etc. Not so. The industry is stuck in a time warp. The only change that has happened in the last decade or two is that the worker now carries a mobile phone, instead of being completely non contactable.

Welcome to the world of the maid.


  1. The maid is smart enough to switch off the mobile in such a manner that the call would always go to the second line.You will not hear the mobile is switched off but not reachable.
    My neighbor has a maid(man) who calls on mobile to update "it is raining so please take the clothes from the terrace"!

  2. I have heard this negotiation many times - Rs.300/- per task, Rs.400/- per task and so on and so forth.
    For 30 days a month (no holidays as you said)
    meaning - less than Rs.20 bucks a day - can she buy a kilo of onions with that.
    and i hate the class difference. she is a human being - isnt it. why differentiate her. why do we consider ourselves imperial blood and her as a child of a lower god?

    But the other side is that she reciprocates it equally well. i have seen my maid push all the dirt under the fridge while sweeping. once she was in a hurry and so my entire clothes, she just put it in soap water and dried it off. you can learn the compassionate art of cleaning without causing any pain either to the wiping cloth or the floor, leave alone the dirt. If i am not around, i know, i have to redo it. Twice i have got cheated, with some one running away with money or articles from my house. I have rewashed vessels, redone the floor, need to supervise many times... hmmm.. my painful woes go on.

    I feel, Both sides have got it all wrong. this is one trait that i admire in my mom. She always treats her maids like the way she used to treat me. When she makes breakfast, she serves hot dosa for both of us together. and she treats her as her own. I know, when the girl got married, she funded a large part of her wedding expense - a loan that she has still not returned. some of the maids who worked for her would give their life for her. some of them, have only taken advantage. But i feel, it starts with us. while i couldnt personally implement her ways into my life (owing to reasons that you can guess i presume).. but given a chance, i would.

    We need to correct this relationship from a master slave to that of a humanitarian one. the right price will follow on its own.

    PS: I have two maids. one in the morning and one in the evening - absentee cover you see :-)

  3. Sandhya Sriram3/7/11

    PPS: I am just wondering what triggered this post

    Am i reading too much ;-) ;-) ;-)

  4. Anonymous3/7/11

    Boo Hoo :-( - my earlier comment disappeared....

    is it in your junk folder?

  5. Phew!! Wish my maid could read this!
    She will know what a nice time she has with this employer. I ask he not to come for two days when I travel and then she adds a day or two to make it a 'block holiday' either to visit her sister or to attend the "jatre".
    And then when we finally meet on the destined days, it is sparks of smiles all over to get as much done
    as possible , coz you never know when one will get a chance next!

  6. @Zeno - The mobile switch off is a common tactic of recalcitrant workers. All flavours and variants of the switch off.

    @Sandhya - Yes it went to junk (Boo to Blogger), but has been retrieved. There are two sides to the story of course - and trust a corporate big shot like you to have absentee cover !!

    Yes there was a trigger, but its as prosaic as an article I read in the Economist.

  7. ithey mathiri titlea 70'sla potruntheenganna..nejamavay kal vanthirukum :) hindi title reason?? national issuengarathala national languagea? intha kammenta padicihitu kyon nahii maara kal nu neenga yosikarathuku munnaadi..escaapeee

  8. This topic is very close to my heart. thanks for bringing it to your blog space.

    I wonder why all the corporate managers fails to manage their own employee at home!!

  9. Most of these problems will only vanish when the employer stops looking at all that they offer as a previlege. I believe when the employers start treating them professionally, the employees start enjoying their work and stops complaining about their employers...But, this requires concious and consistent effort of so many of us...

    It is so easy, if only we are willing...It was such a fulfilling feeling when I heard from a third party source that my part-time maid (who works at my home only on Sundays) had spoken so well of me to her :). But, having grown up in a family who treated/cared for their maids/servants as one within the family, all that I do only seemed usual to me....

    //The employer is usually a lady - ninety percent of the time. She fervently believes that she is the fairest employer of all and all this unsavoury labour practices, which she incidentally tch tches at, are done by other amazons , not her.//--Very true! We never know when/how we falter....

  10. Very nice write-up, Ramesh! Thought provoking to the least. While some of the traits on part of both employer and employee exist in other employment set-up also, I am particularly upset with low wage levels, use of child labour and misery in terms of benefits and rest. Wonder how this industry would improve itself. Yearly bonus and paid holidays must come into picture. It is there but the situation is far from satisfactory. Child labor is totally unacceptable but part of the reason why child labor is sometimes encouraged by employee herself is due to poverty and illiteracy.

  11. very interesting.... Came here and then realised i read your blog on my reader :))

    Are u into HR by any chance?

  12. @hema - you really must be the dream employer - with all the traveling you do; most days are holidays !!

    @gilsu - Ippolam enna mathiri movie edukkanum ??? Maid 360 ya ???? :)

    @venkat - This sector badly needs some organising.

    @RS - Many ladies are very kind to their maids (like you; but then you are kind to everybody). I know of many who finance the maid's child's education, etc etc. Its just human nature being good. But a vast majority treat their maids very poorly.

    @Vishal - As you observe, nothing gets me boiling mad as child labour. That's illegal under the law, but then who enforces it really.

    @Aarti - Welcome to this space and thanks for commenting. No, I am not in HR. Started with finance and moved to Gen Mgmt.

  13. kiwibloke3/7/11

    I have a heavy duty washing m/c, drier, all kinds of gadgets to cut chop slice dice mince grate carve and peel, central vacuum system, a huge big oven and an even bigger freezer, a top quality iron (Christ this almost sounds like the famous dire straits song - money for nothing) and most important of all, I have a dust free environment in Auckland. Liberated from the tyranny of a maid! All the above named gadgets come with 3 to 10 year warranties and never take a break.

  14. @kiwi - Yes - that's the way of the West (you lot down here don't count :) ), but that's so very impersonal. Better to corporatise maids !!

  15. 'Maid'en post sire. It is slowly getting to be an organized sector. The ill-treatment has mostly to do with negative mind-sets. We had a maid at my grandmother's house who worked for around 20 years till old age forced her to retire to her village, and was close as a relative and had liberty with us. We did shed tears when we heard she passed on and also on another who had late diagnosed cancer and worked until two months before she withered away. Little acts of kindness and empathy do go a long way.

  16. The maid who "visits" - we call her "The Silencer". True to her name, - she rarely speaks, and never ever breaks a smile, no matter how cute my son looks - waving Hi's and Bye's at her. Well said that there has been barely any improvements. Back after a long time. :) Will drill down the older posts now.

  17. Hey Ramesh,

    Great topic of interest to me..! MAIDS...hahaha! I went thru everyone's comments too and I guess they r "The People" we can't do without and can't stop cribbing about..!
    I always had this dream that i will keep a maid and when i had one..I started banging my head on the wall...But it's a learning curve. Instead of being rude i started instructing her and sit with hr listening to her stories..! Over 3 months she has learnt how to deal with me. Informs well in advance before talking an off day. Yet, I always live in fear that she might disappear all of a sudden.

  18. Personally, I really haven't come across any sour bai and memsahib relationships in my close circle. Every relative that I go to (or even call up from here), have maids that are now so much part of the family that they all have seen us grow up and know our tastes and habits more than anyone.

    Though I've heard of stories of people expecting inhumane amounts of work from the maids, to be honest, maids these days do not even bother to negotiate further if they aren't happy with the amount of work they have to do. Its an evenly placed game these days. I am not sure about small towns though, maybe the old exploiting memsahibs still exist there, but I can bet, their days are numbered.

    By the way, I have these friends from Delhi, and their maid comes from an agency. The maids that come from the agency have their backgrounds verified. There are rules around the allotments, the terms and chores are formally agreed upon and maids have to change after a one year term, etc. etc. I know of a similar agency in Pune too.

    Maybe the Housekeepers Co. Pvt. Ltd. is not a utopian dream anymore. And after my stint in this country of zero domestic services, I wouldn't mind being the entrepreneur.

  19. @RamMmm - Classic RamMmm riposte - maiden post indeed :) Very keen to hear Senora's views :):)

    @LEB - Hurray , THE Blogeuer is back. How anybody can be nin responsive to Onga beats me - you seem to have a particularly malevolent specimen of that tribe !

    @Flowing Thoughts - Yes indeed. The classic maid dilemma. They exasperate you and yet you can't do without them ! Your tactics seem to have worked.

    @Deepa - Wow - a very learned response. Oh no - don't agree at all about the bit on their being less exploitation. No way. Even the way maids are fired with zero notice of recourse to an appeal - try that in a factory or an office and we'll have a riot on our hands.

    There are many agencies but they are usually useless and violate the same laws merrily. I am yet to hear a single maid have PF benefits - the law of the land says you have to have it and I don;t know of any other law so universally flouted.

    If you start Housekeepers Co Pvt Ltd, may I join as the first employee. I promise to keep good accounts and keep Mme Fatima happy :):)

  20. :D Rolling on the floor laughing at the pot shot!! You don't miss a single opportunity, do you!

  21. Thanks for the post Ramesh. I always try to draw an analogy with the situation of a maid that to the outsourcing business.

    The client always try to outsource their pain areas (as we do with our house work) and expect the service provider to deliver the best of services (as we do with our maids) even when their own house [read processes] are in utter shambles (a question i always ask my wife- how can you expect the maid to clean much better than you do) at rock bottom prices (just as we do negotiate lower prices with maids).

    I am not surprised that they abdicate their work and responsibity. I would want to know from all our white collared working class fraternity -- how would they react when they are given the same treatment as that of a maid--- probably change jobs ... No surprises when they do the same... Also we moan and cry when we have to work weekends but do not shy away from shouting match when the maid takes leave on week end especially when you are expecting a guest...

    Unfair is it not... perhaps we are no better than the Chinese in making our maids work at virtually no benefits to them...

  22. @Chennai Vibes - Totally agree.

  23. Anonymous6/7/11

    amazing and confronting to read this blog, ah, but then I go on to read the blog before (doing some blog catch up) and the madness of the divide between the 'haves and the have nots' both in terms of financial and expectations becomes very evident !!! Its a crazy crazy world - an alien looking at us form outspace would think we humans may look the same but we must be completely different human species !!

  24. Anonymous6/7/11

    ps.... from trevor !!

  25. @Trevor - Its a crazy and sad world, isn't it. I didn't mean to follow these posts back to back, but now that you have pointed it, it shows how crazy we are.

  26. :-) Senora looks at it with a more humane point of view than me. Doesn't mind when the maid isn't in and pitches in when the maid is working. When I ask her, "why, she could take you for a ride", she says "why not, after all she is another human like us and trust is important". She has had a very cordial relationship with the different maids who had worked with us. :-D

  27. sulo9/7/11

    ha ha... watta post??!! I never expected it would end this way, and was wondering wat is Ram spkin about 90% women n all... ha... u caught me there... nice post :)

  28. @RamMmm - Wow - Senora is unique, to which you would, of course, heartily agree.

    @sulo - You write breezy , chatty comments in other blogs and yet you are not posting regularly yourself. Like your brand of blogging - get regular girl :)

  29. Huh...from wht I hr maids in India have it easy....they look at the marble finish ourside ur house & decide wht they'll charge. From there the charges only go up for each extra work....did u knw washing clothes by hand is considered extra work nowadays;-o.
    And if by chance u go to their house u'll find tv, fridge, mixi, the works.
    Dont mistake me....I dont begrudge them any of the amenities and sympathise with their plight but only if they were more sincere. My mum has borne the brunt of many comings & goings.
    I on the other hand have been incredibly lucky here in all these years I had just 2 of them and both were excellent and it was a pleasure to pay them at the end of the month. I even prayed for their health whenever I prayed about mine;-D

  30. @Reflections - Your story itself tells the tale. In India, your mother pays below minimum wages, as that's the going rate for maids. What else can we expect. In Dubai you pay a fortune. You get what you pay for. Yes, there is fault on both sides, but on the whole, my view is that the maid is the more exploited one, even in cities.

  31. sulo`20/7/11

    lol @ nancy's last line :D

    @ Ram: i should, and i will... thanks! :)


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