What is the value of a domestic worker?

Indians mistreating domestic workers is nothing new. We casually raise our eyebrows at domestic workers raped, killed and tortured. Such news coming from politician’s homes may be an opportunity for ridiculing the party, but it isn’t going to see anyone protesting on the streets. Nor is anyone going to stop voting for a politician just because of stories of abuse of domestic workers.

It is tradition in India to whine about rising costs of domestic workers at home, and middle class house wives grudge every hundred rupee raise in their charges and speak of their arrogance in extorting money just because people need work done. What is the income of a domestic worker? It can be anything from Rs. 300 to Rs. 800 “per work” per month, depending on where you are in the country. So a woman who comes and sweeps and mops your house gets Rs.800 per month from you, if she washes your dishes as well, you can add another Rs.800 and so on.

Domestic work is probably the only “job sector” in India, where the industrial revolution is never going to make an inroad, because it takes more money added to your electricity bill to use a vacuum cleaner, washing machine or dishwasher daily than to employ a maid, who can do the job better – not to mention the time you spend on the work in addition. And of course, the maid doesn’t wash only the dishes in the sink and leave the washed dishes in the sink as well. She will tidy the home, and “process” the clothes on the floor before sweeping it, take your tea mug to the kitchen and wash it and return it to its correct place. Something a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher or washing machine is never going to do for you.

So it is hardly surprising that we don’t really see domestic workers as people. They are just more efficient alternatives to machines, at best and inferior slave humans for those not touched by modernity.

Some of the worst stories do come from “elite” households, like locking a domestic worker inside the home while you go on a vacation, or of course your garden variety rape and torture. We aren’t even looking at stuff like the occasional slap or yelling yet. No point even talking about money deducted on whim for “lack of delivery” of efficient service ranging from days off to imperfect work. And of course you can fire them on whim. Like “don’t come from tomorrow”. That is all it takes.

Similarly, we don’t particularly take seriously stories of abuse of Indian domestic workers abroad. Forget US. Check out some of the horror stories coming out of Saudi Arabia, where women can’t even head out on their own if abused. And most of these stories are women and children. The idea of an Indian Embassy is an alien concept for inferior Indians abroad. You think the country is going to rattle relations with another country over abuse of a maid? We abuse maids in India, so what’s the big deal if Indian maids get abused abroad?

Domestic workers are busy with twelve and fourteen hour days in order to be able to afford to survive. They are hardly going to stand at India gate in protest and get their pay docked for those days, not to mention the risk of losing their jobs to another desperate soul who will promise not to take days off that inconvenience their masters. And those employing them to care for their homes while they wore white and carried candles to protest a rape are not going to get those candles and whites out over a maid.

India has signed the ILO convention for rights of domestic workers in 2011, but is yet to ratify it. Calls to fix a domestic worker’s minimum wage to Rs.30 per hour have fallen on deaf ears. This Rs. 30 per hour would give an income of Rs.9,000 to a worker who *worked* 10 hours a day – not including travel between places of work, which basically would mean a 12 hour working day of hard physical labour. But this would triple what they get paid in many places. So obviously the idea of a maid being paid Rs.30,000 being underpaid is a bit alien in India.

I make a point of paying my domestic help significantly more than the going rate as well as offering food and ensuring that she is never abused  or coerced into working more than she contracted to in my household. And I am still not paying her what would be a recommended rate. I should, but I need help, and I can’t afford, so I do what I can, and apologize for not doing better. It is not a new thing for people who come to know this to accuse me of “spoiling the maid” or “raising their expectations” or “spoiling the working rate for our locality”.  Because the idea is that there should be a default refusal to give maids anything more than is unavoidable. Including and particularly money and dignity.

We even had a few wise people talking about how people should pay their domestic labour in India as per US rates before talking. Well, Devyani was not arrested for what she paid her babysitter in India. She was arrested for LYING on the visa form on what she would pay, and then not paying it. She is a hale and hearty person in a country with abundant domestic appliances and no shame attached to using them if she cannot afford help. But that, of course won’t satisfy the average Indian sense of “value for money” on domestic work as is reflected in our country’s reaction. “What do you mean paying maids normal salaries?” is the gist of our outrage.

But then Devyani isn’t a stranger to faking paperwork for profit, is she? Devyani Khobragade faked documents – or rather withheld disclosure – to get a flat in the scam-tainted Adarsh Society where defense officials bureaucrats and politicians got allocated flats in an illegally expanded project building that was originally intended to provide housing to families of Kargil war heroes. Devyani owned a flat in Meera Cooperative Society in Oshiwara under the state government’s quota for civil servants. Maharashtra government requires an official applying for a flat under a government quota to give a signed affidavit stating that they do not own any other flat. It is unclear whether she did not give this affidavit, or gave a false affidavit. In any case, she has now reportedly sold the cheap quota flat for an exorbitant amount.

This is another Indian concept. Having the right paperwork for what you want to do. That the paperwork is supposed to be a record of reality is not such an issue. Rather like the “relatives” for hire available outside marriage registrar’s offices to act as “witnesses” for registering marriages. The registrar probably recognizes a few of them by name from seeing them routinely marrying off so many “relatives”, but is not expected to comment. Similarly, if getting a maid means putting a certain amount as her salary on paper, it is just “paperwork”. So is an affidavit you need for getting your new government quota flat that says you don’t have any other flat. Paperwork. And India is so used to this way of operating, that we do not see this as the kind of abuse of an Indian domestic worker that a domestic worker should be able to approach our consulate for help with instead of suffering at their hands.

India has even explained really well that we can’t pay maids as per US standard, because that would make their salary on par with those they are serving. I am yet to understand how it is the US’s problem if India pays consular officials “minimum wage”. If the official being able to afford the wage is an issue, surely India can employ the domestic workers to care for their officials on duty? Surely this is an issue to raise BEFORE committing to paying a rate that is on par with the US minimum wage in the visa forms? Something like “Please respect the Indian tradition of keeping the domestic labour underpaid and poor and in their correct class.”?

The real embarassment in this issue is the outrageous sense of entitlement of our political class that Indian officials breaking laws are somehow immune to US justice. It is an embarassing confession of how India runs that we are putting diplomatic pressure on the State Government to reverse the actions of their law enforcement. A law enforcement that makes it clear that Devyani Khobragade’s immunity does not extend to her actions beyond her role as a consular official as per the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

While no one would dispute that US law enforcement is routinely disproportionate (and sometimes more shocking than the crime it fights), it can hardly be argued that law enforcement acted with any special malice for Devyani. By all indications, she went through the normal “humiliation” of an arrest in the US. I am not even going to pretend to know why someone accused of lying about babysitter’s payment on a visa form needs to be strip searched, but the fact remains that like in India “normal process” is for politicians to pull police strings and have a say in whether and how high profile people get arrested, “normal process” in the US is a police force bloated on its own sense of authority and procedure.

What is sad in this story is that a domestic worker being paid below minimum wage by the one place she could approach for help if mistreated in a foreign land is, as usual, NOT a story.

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