How many times have we heard people especially home makers complain that their world is upside down because of the lack of a maid. Even if they do find a maid, the problems and tension does not seem to stop. That’s partly because they are now challenging existing norms by demanding fairer pay and better working conditions. And that sometimes includes branded gifts and time out with boyfriends.
I still remember my maid named Kala slave for a pittance at a home in Cochin. The family had migrated to the capital from a village near Palghat in search of a better life 20 years ago. Today, her daughter earns 10 times Kala’s salary and, more importantly, is indispensable to her employer.
Kala’s small story actually chronicles a sweeping change in how India’s metros treat their domestic help. This is not just driven by the fact that we are becoming an egalitarian society. A host of factors are now empowering the domestic labour force in the city and the bai is no longer a pushover.
The underpaid, overworked, subservient maid of our childhood, who did her work quietly and accepted old sarees from our mothers with gratitude, has transformed into an empowered, often educated and confident worker who does not bat an eyelid before demanding respectable wages, perks, expensive gifts on festivals, weekly offs, and flexi-hours. But since most middle-class families still seem to be used to the old system, where the grandmothers scoffed at the idea of treating the servants well, they continue to seek a help who is good, reliable, does not throw tantrums and is cheap.
But like parking space and affordable housing, finding such workers in cities is becoming increasingly difficult. I had a tough time looking for a stable and reliable help after my dad fell ill a couple of months ago. “I tried two-three women but they had the oddest of demands. One wanted to watch TV all day long, another would sing and prance about the house and a third one said she would only cook and supervise the other servant cleaning and washing clothes and dishes. After about 3 months struggle I managed to find a good part-time help.
Not only is getting good house-help difficult, retaining them is another battle. A very dear friend recalls an interesting episode involving her maid. “I got a full-time help, a lady in her 40s, who took good care of her house and her young child. But she had an odd request. She wanted a bottle once in a while. So, on her off day, she liked her drink and enjoyed getting sozzled. And I shamelessly relented because I really needed her. “
With more and more middle-class women taking career jobs, working for long hours, they are now, more than ever, dependent on cooks, maids, nannies and drivers.
Another friend who lives with her husband and two-year-old daughter in Bangalore, spends Rs 7, 500 a month on her house-helps. She has a full-time maid who cooks, takes care of her daughter and does the dusting. The part-time lady does the washing and cleaning. She feels that urban lifestyles leave very little time for housekeeping and that’s why people like her just can’t do without outside help. She goes on to explain that our parents led simpler lives and did a lot of their work on their own. But we depend on drivers, nannies, cleaners etc. Today, if the driver doesn’t show up it throws the day out of gear!
However while the demand has increased, the supply has not. Development and progress in villages and small towns that are traditionally backward areas known for providing cities with cheap workforce – has created job opportunities for the labour class there.Newer jobs in the city, like those of security guards, have provided them with better alternatives. So, we still have the same pool of informal, unorganised labour, but now there are many more people dipping into it.
Clearly, the social dynamics are in a flux.Migration of labour from rural areas to big metros is slowly declining due to high costs of living in the cities. Earning Rs 5, 000 or Rs 6, 000 in a city can hardly get you much these days. For the same reason, migrant labour that’s already in the city is now demanding higher wages. “
Employers are ready to do anything to keep their maids in good humour. My friend in Bangalore takes her maid out to the movies and the malls once in a while. She is also very cautious of reprimanding her cook. There are days when the rice is undercooked or overcooked, or she puts too much or too little salt in the food, but she can’t point out her mistake. Even if she is damn angry, sge controls her rage and sweetly explain to the maid what’s missing. She cannot risk losing her.
I was just thinking, I remember seeing the Bai comes to our house for the sweeping, cleaning in a ragged saree ( the erstwhile of the typical Bai!) and I am amazed at the way my cook comes in wearing a fashionable salwar and matching accessories! WHATTA CHANGE!
Be that as it may, the fact is that today’s career woman cannot do without her home staff. Your maid may watch too much television, use your expensive cream in your absence and consume too much tea, but if at the end of your workday she welcomes you to a tidy home, a well-kept kid and a warm dinner, then she’s worth all her tantrums and price tag. And if not anything else, how many daily soaps and cinemas have plots based on servants and maliks or malkins and our famous “Gangu Bai” making us laugh by potraying the typical maid!
P.S- haaaa after all this, I shamelessly admit to having a maid for cleaning, sweeping, washing, A self proclaimed Cook and a full time help for dad!!