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A very important relationship that lets us do our work

Nirupama Subramanian

Updated: June 24, 2013, 11:37 AM IST
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A few months ago, I was conducting a leadership workshop with senior managers of a large bank. We were doing a session on Relationship Networks. Each person was asked to map out all 'relationships' - the people at work and outside who contributed to their success on the job and examine the nature of their relationships with them. I was happy to note that many of these men acknowledged the contribution of their wives to their jobs. "Because she manages the house and children so well, I can work 12-14 hours a day," said one. "I am the AGM at office but my wife is the General Manager at home," remarked another. All of them laughed indulgently. Because these men do not have to worry about clean bathrooms, laundry, ironing, fresh vegetables, getting the milk, children's homework, cooking, fixing the leaky tap and caring for the elderly grandmother at home. They can focus on their jobs, chase that promotion and go for a 'team building' drink after work. Lucky! Where are the wives for the women? Do the working women have a General Manager at home?

When I drew my own relationship network, I realised that there was a critical relationship that enabled me to work and yet I did not even consider it as such. Women at my stage of life can manage quite easily without the husbands for a week or more. Many would cook just one meal, the kids would happily eat pizzas and maybe some other girlfriend whose husband is travelling would come over for a glass of wine and gossip. But if the maid does not turn up for a single day, it is a problem. For a woman who works, it is a catastrophe. These are the managers of our home, the caretakers of our family. If these women did not come in to work at my home, I could not do my work outside it.

It is not only an important relationship but also one that is among the most stressful to handle. Even if we don't do the actual work ourselves, the responsibility of managing the staff falls to the woman of the house. If we are to be General Managers of the house, these are our team members, the valued subordinates to whom we have the delegated the responsibility of the household. Like any Human Resource manager, we struggle with acquisition, retention, motivation, training and compensation of our staff. I guess there are many examples of a happy and peaceful coexistence, where the two are genuinely fond of each other as individuals but these are more of an exception than the norm. In today's world, it is a relationship fraught with tension. It requires finesse, tact and a fine balancing act.

Having a maid is an advantage that many in the first world do not have. If you are reading this in India, you have definitely grown up seeing a maid work at your home. None of us, the urban educated, are used to doing manual labour at home. One of my friends was unhappy that her husband had accepted a posting in London. 'Now I will have to give up my job and become a maid,' she complained. While the software engineer, the Call Centre executive and the plumber who goes to work in the Gulf are respected as professionals, the domestic help is at the bottom of the rung. It could be a coincidence that most of them - the kaamwalis, the baais, the cooks, the nannies and the ayahs are women. They do women's work inside the house. It is ironical that this is what enables both the master and mistress to do other work, work that is more exciting, creative and remunerative than washing dishes, mopping floors and dusting shelves. I don't think we respect the work, therefore it is difficult to respect the person who does the work. It seems to be low skilled work done by uneducated people yet, I am sure a avvy investment banker wouldn't be able to sweep and swab the floors to a smooth clean shine in an hour like a good maid can.

Most of us use the word servants to describe the domestic help. There is an inherent quality of service and subservience in that word. We expect the help to be humble, loyal, hardworking and undemanding rather like the devoted Ramu kaka or Kaaki of the early Bollywood movies who had brought up Chotte sahib since he was a baby. The days of the grateful family retainer are long gone but the feudal expectations remain. Added to that are all the class and caste differences that lurk beneath the surface. Factor in the fact that the help is a woman who is not expected to assert her rights but sacrifice her needs for the well-being of others. It is difficult to think of her as a working professional who is paid a wage for her services. Many of the urban maids at least, have a mind of their own and are confident women who are just there to earn a decent living. There are those who answer back, who may argue. Many a maid has been sacked for 'giving attitude'. I can take that from a subordinate at work but the ego comes in the way of accepting any such behaviour from a mere maid.

With working women, the equation becomes more complicated. We veer between aggression and appeasement. A reasonably efficient maid who is good with the kid is pampered and pandered to because it would be difficult to find a replacement. I know of someone who overlooks minor pilferages because the child is very fond of the nanny. Someone who doesn't meet a standard is admonished harshly. We have high expectations that they will be committed, proactive and take ownership of their tasks. Sometimes, we take out our own guilt at not being the perfect domestic goddess on the maid. Sometimes, we over compensate. We want to be compassionate but are wary of being taken advantage of. We want to trust but cannot quell the subterranean suspicion that rises up from time to time. We cannot relate to them as a customer and service provider or a boss and subordinate, not even as one working woman to another.

I have a part-time cleaning maid and a live-in cook. My cook cum housekeeper is a dour lady from Jharkhand, given to mood swings, sudden pains and sullen silences. She is finicky about her food and firm in her opinions. She is also hardworking, reliable, trustworthy and honest. She supervises the cleaning lady, picks up groceries and takes my daughter to her classes when I am at work. She has learnt to make crunchy crisp dosas and fluffy idlis. I don't have family in Gurgaon. My husband has a hectic 12-hour day. I can travel out of town because I know that my home and child are in her care. When she goes on her annual leave, I take off from work. When my maid complains of any illness, I immediately medicate her. If she continues to complain, I drop everything and rush her to the doctor. Yes, I am concerned about her well- being which is essential to my own well- being. Sometimes, I resent that dependence. Though I give her the daily instructions, she behaves as though she is the boss of our household. We both believe that we are putting up with each other - I think that she won't get a better, more lenient and understanding employer, she believes that we won't get a better help. We have survived each other for six years based on the 'known devil' principle. There are days when I come close to firing her and days when I am just humbly grateful for her presence. Like the facebook relationship status, 'It is complicated'.

But no matter what the nature of the relationship is, the one thing that is true is that the maid is definitely worse off in life as compared to the memsahib. Yes, there are maids who are rude, sloppy, liars, thieves and cheats and they should be dealt with just as we would deal with any employee. But the vast majority of them are poor uneducated women whose life is a struggle. They leave their own family to live in a stranger's home. The part time maids have to rush back to their own family and do the same chores all over again. They are vulnerable outside their own home and often subject to abuse and violence within it.

There are more than 9 million domestic workers in the country and they have no legal rights as workers. They do not have a minimum wage, they are expected to work long hours. We all have heard horror stories of abuse and harassment of these women and girls at the hands of their employers or agents. The National Policy for Domestic workers is still being discussed in the Cabinet. Some states have passed laws relating to minimum wages for domestic help. I doubt anything much will come of it. Few people care about these poor marginalised women. The thought of strikes by maid unions fills us with dread. Most of us do not want them to get above themselves and use their combined bargaining power.

I wonder how many generations it would take for the domestic help situation in India to become like that in the western world. My guess is that it will take quite a few years because of the sheer number of poor people who need to eke out a livelihood. The heat,dust and grime here ensures that once a week vacuuming will not do to keep our houses clean. What would be welcome is some kind of organisation in this sector. I wouldn't mind paying well for a good efficient maid who would take ownership of her job. I would be happier with clearly laid down norms that are universally applicable instead of wondering if I am overpaying her or underutilising her. If we could elevate this job to a higher level and bring some kind of professionalism to it, both the women who go out of their homes to work and those who come into could be more productive, prosperous and peaceful.
First Published: June 24, 2013, 11:37 AM IST

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