The servant problem

Domestic worker, maid, servant, ‘akka’ – we don’t seem to have an articulate enough vocabulary to describe the people who keep our homes and our children clean, healthy and happy. Each of these words is tainted – domestic worker sounds too formal (like a census category); ‘maid’ conjours up images of ‘French Maid’ or some palatial residence in the Alps or 1880s Britain’ servant is too subservient or  persecuted; and ‘akka’ or ‘didi’ (older sister) is suitable only for children. But the ‘servant problem’ is not just one of terminology, it’s so much more…

It’s true we live in a country where many women have to be employed to sweep, mop, clean bathrooms, wash dishes, wash or hang out clothes, dust, cook meals and then go home and do the same thing for their own families. Who is cooking her child’s  after-school snack, if she’s frying pakoras for yours? The wages of domestic workers is unprotected, they have no health insurance, no benefits, no stipulated vacation time and no employee rights. You could accuse her  of stealing and no one would believe she didn’t do it, if you shouted. We wouldn’t put up with those conditions in the formal sector – why do we tolerate it in the informal? As humans, do we have a need to dominate someone in our lives, grab and snatch a few moments of power everyday?

Many, many people help their maids out through loans, counselling, and in some cases this is their only home and family (and many many more don’t care at all). Most Indians will remember the ‘akka’ they had growing up. Some stayed longer than others and were a big part of our lives as kids. Some families will have two servants – one who cooks and one who does all the cleaning chores and looking after the kids. I remember with great fondness two ladies that worked for us at different times. One was Rajama – she was tall for an Indian woman, almost 6 feet, with a round face that revealed a big toothy grin. I have no idea about the quality of her work but I was a kid and those things didn’t concern me. She would walk me to school, clear up my lunch dishes and bathe me in the evenings before she went home (it’s hard to talk about any of this without seeming like a pampered little spoilt brat). I would watch her eat her sambar and rice in the backyard: she had this peculiar way of balling up the rice and sambar, too dry for my liking but just enough sambar to hold the rice together, and then lob  it in to her wide mouth. Great big handfuls of rice she would eat, picking at the vegetable, adding it to the centre of the neatly formed ball of rice and sambar. She eventually married the ‘egg man’ – the man who would deliver fresh eggs. I never knew of their love affair, despite hanging around with her most of the time. She had a tattoo on her forearm which most village women do – the name of their father or husband is burned in to their forearm – probably the only thing she could read. While Rajama was around, we had a lady who would cook for us and here’s a tongue twister of a name – Chaklamma  akka or ‘Chuckles’ as she eventually came to be known. She was quite surly, overweight, very smelly, had a bad time managing her diabetes but boy could she cook a crispy bhindi fry.

The other lady who worked for us from when I was 12 up until I got married at 26, was Malathi. She had a difficult family life and was determined not to get married – she’d seen too many of her friends end up as ‘burning brides’ – dowry deaths as they are called. No, she had given her life to the Lord – her Christian name was Margaret and after all these years I have no idea what her surname is – and no man would be good enough. She would sit at the bottom of the stairs watching the TV in the living room, always religious programming, some preacher or the other – while my grandfather huffed and puffed as he had to relinquish some of his evening TV watching time. There are plenty of stories I remember of these ladies, too many to tell, but suffice it to say they formed an integral part of my daily life.

Yesterday as I was walking Abroozi through the park, a servant lady with her employer’s child on her hip, came running up to me very agitated . She said that a group of (privileged) children (whom I had already observed wielding very long sticks) had called her child over to play and then proceeded to encircle him and beat him with said long sticks. The children were a distance away but I could see that they began to look my way as the servant lady was complaining to me and dispersed in different directions, fleeing the scene of the crime wearing worried looks, and leaving behind the one girl who was the ‘ring leader’. So I called the girl over, probably no more than seven years old, and asked her if what the servant lady was saying was true. The girl replied in shifty fits and starts, claiming that the servant lady’s son started hitting them with sticks first so they retaliated but whatever she said amounted to not very much, interspersed with mild, ineffective protests proclaiming her innocence. So I asked her if she thought the servant lady was lying. To which she replied ‘Yes’, then ‘maybe’, implying that it wasn’t so black and white. So I asked her, ‘Why would the servant lady lie? What good does it do her to lie?’ And the seven year old was pretty flummoxed by that one.

So I began my speech about not playing with sticks so big and definitely not hitting each other with them as it could lead to all sorts of injuries. Then I said that I didn’t know who was telling the truth about the servant’s son but I was pretty sure the servant lady, his mother, was telling the truth. She had no motive to lie and complaining to me (a privileged woman) could actually get her in more trouble. I then asked the privileged little girl whether she thought there was any difference between herself and the servant lady’s son and the look she gave me said one thing, ‘Of course there is – he’s a servant’s child and I’m not’. Two of her comrades, who I could see through the corner of my eye, circling round, came to support the girl and offered their two pennies of wisdom, ‘But aunty’, they said, ‘The signboard says that servant’s children are not allowed to play here.’ He was right, that’s what the board said, but the rules were wrong (it also said I couldn’t walk my dog through the park, although no one had informed the stray dogs. Dog owners and servants are lumped in the same category of irritants). I asked, ‘Do you think the rules are right?’ Do you think the rules are fair?’.

I said to him, ‘Look around, there are as many servants here as privileged children because the servants are looking after the kids as they play or attend their karate lesson.’ I said, ‘Ask yourselves if the rule is fair. Does your servant cook for you? serve you food and water? Clean your house, your toilets? Bath you? Bring you safely to play and back? She does all these things for you, touches your food, carries the little ones, gives you kisses but you won’t touch her child? If she brings you to play, who is going to bring her child to the playground – your mother, I think not. SO where is the fairness in that?’
I told them that they were nobody – their fathers may have accomplished things that gives their children the privilege of this playground but as children, their accomplishments are exactly the same as the servant boys’.

They were silent for quiet a while and said, ‘We didn’t think about it in that way.’ So I struck with my last message of civil disobedience (a legitimate form of protest championed none other than the greats: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela) – don’t blindly follow every rule presented to you. If you see unfairness, you must address it, you must do everything you can to make it fair.’

I was pretty appalled that at such a young age, children saw no equality between each other. That notions of inequality were so ingrained in them by the age of 7, upset me deeply. I lay the blame squarely on their parents and teachers for not talking about these issues. I’ve been writing a paper on the inequitable prosperity of adivasis (indigenous people of India) all week and words from Mandela’s book, Long walk to freedom have been spinning around in my head. If black South Africans had simply accepted the rules as presented to them, there would be no Mandela, no freedom struggle, and apartheid would rule. People are fighting big government and big corporations for adivasi rights. People I  know work in hospitals and schools for adivasis. There are people doing their bit. But here was a group of children that just saddened me. Their sense of intolerance was so raw and yet not new at all.  This type of discrimination has been around for centuries and here it had been allowed to flourish.

I came across an article in the Economist about a book called, ‘The Servant Problem: An Attempt at its Solution”, published in 1899 Britain: ‘This was the era of Britain’s “Servant Problem”: middle-class dinner parties buzzed not with school admissions and house prices but with the shortage of decent help, and its tendency to stalk off at the slightest provocation.’

This rings true of every Indian gathering I’ve been to where women are present. The talk always turns to, ‘So do you have a servant and how is she?’ (not how is her health but how is her quality of work and attitude to work).

The article goes on to say, ‘ Servants “have broken my spirit and ruined my health,” one friend tells the author, who went under the name of An Experienced Mistress. They are “necessary evils”, another moans.’ That was the thinking in 1900s Britain when we Indians were the servants and now the servants have becomes the mistresses, bemoaning the same ‘problem’ 114 years later. I remember a dear friend of mine in the UK who wrestled with the idea of getting a polish/ukranian/latvian maid to clean her flat and when she finally gave in,  she would tidy up the house before the maid got there so that the maid wouldn’t see the true extent of the messiness in which she lived!!

While no reliable statistics determine the number of domestic workers in India’s informal  sector, the data  of the National Sample Survey Organisation (61st Round, 2004-5) reveals an approximate figure of 4.2 million domestic workers in the country, while NGOs claim that figure is more like 90 million (ILO). The contribution of the workers in this sector is rarely computed within the economy but some studies quote around 61% contribution to the GDP. Don’t forget that these women can work in many different homes and offices and still have to go back home and clean their own homes and cook for their families. The average domestic worker’s day can begin at 5am and end at 10pm. Domestic workers lack organisation and a platform to  express their rights or demands mainly because the nature of their employment is unstable. Some states like Tamil Nadu have made small efforts – including domestic workers in the Manual Workers Act; Maharashtra prohibits state government employees from employing domestic workers under 14 years of age (Child labour is illegal but it seems to be stipulated to here as well). But clearly this is not enough.

From the Economist article, I quote: “Mistresses have always complained about servants: employment inevitably creates difficulties, but the relationship is trickier when the workplace is the employer’s home. The combination of physical proximity and class difference offers a wealth of dramatic possibilities, as the writers of novels and television programmes discovered long ago. “The Help”, a novel of black servants and white mistresses in the American south in the 1960s, has sold 5m copies and has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; this year “Downton Abbey”, a British soap based on relations between aristocrats and servants in a grand Yorkshire house, has gripped many millions around the world and garnered five Emmy awards. The drama is set around the time of World War I, when the servant problem was shifting the balance of power, and heightening tensions, between those above and below stairs.”

Perhaps we have one thing to thank Devyani Khobragade for – that she raised the issue of the appalling condition of how many people  treat their domestic help by the appalling way she treated hers. Cudos to the Americans I say for hauling her ass to court. Investigators in the case say that Devyani Khobragade, a member of India’s consular staff in New York, made false claims to obtain a visa for a domestic worker, and caused another individual (the domestic worker) to make statements she knew to be “materially false”. The U.S. prosecutor also alleged that Ms. Khobragade paid Ms. Richard far less than the wage required by visa rules and worked her over the stipulated hours set out in the contract submitted to obtain the visa during her employment between Nov. 2012 and June 2013.

What struck me about this entire incident is how the story of the maid, Sangeeta Richards, got completely lost as the Indian government was outraged by how one of their ‘privileged’ foreign service elites was treated. How about the way the maid was treated? How on earth did the Indians make this privileged woman out to be the victim? The reason the maid’s story failed to get play here in India was because we’ve always treated our maids badly. We’ve always underpaid them, not trusted them and treated them as lesser beings. I bet a lot of Indians were saying, $3.31 an hour (Rs.197 an hour x 7hrs a day x 30 days=Rs40,000) and living in a fancy diplomats house in America – that maid should just be grateful. My maid cleans for 2 hours a day (no cooking) and gets Rs.1500, plus food supplies (rice, oil etc). That’s Rs25 an hour. I should be put in jail.

domestic workers of India. Image from Google

domestic workers of India. Image from Google

So to parents and teachers I would say, talk to your children about equality. Tell them that the reason we have so many women who have no choice but to be maids is because of extreme poverty that is not their fault. Maybe that can motivate the next generation of leaders, policy makers and business people to alleviate the problem rather than add to it. The argument used to be that just giving poor people employment was good enough. The ‘servant problem has been about lack of availability and work ethic’.  The real servant problem should be about how we failed to think about how we were treating them, their quality of life. We should be doing more than just giving them employment. We should ensure they are enrolled in government schemes like RSBY that offers free health protection for domestic servants in private and public hospitals. We should ensure they’ve got ration cards and voter Id cards – having identification in this country means something; in a country of 1 billion, it means a lot that you are counted and legally identifiable. Talk to them about their child’s education, their girl child’s education and nutrition, how dowry is illegal and the tons of other evils that plague our society.

And to all of us ‘mistresses’ all I can say is, be kind. Be kind to the maids who walk long distances, migrate from thousands of kilometers to work in cities and towns. Be kind. Kindness should not be something  you dish out to your fellow privileged.


About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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3 Responses to The servant problem

  1. alka ganesh says:

    Your views on the disadvantaged servants need to be voiced in many more platforms. They are seen as “bosses”, “theives”, “ruthless”. My own view is to pay them so well that they will enjoy working, and will behave very well to hold on to your job. Also, ensure that every time you get a bonus or a payrise, pass on a small amount to them; anyway, let them know that every year the pay goes up by at least a good percentage. It is truly amazing how people who can bust a few thousand at aposh restaurant in an evening, would be giving less than that for a whole month’s salary. What you say about kindness is very true. Concern for their child, their health, paying for their medicines, does not hurt the employer much (hospital bills may), and goes a long way in making their lives that much better.

  2. mh says:

    A very relevant post as usual.

  3. Sue Norman says:

    Excellent post!

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