15 December 2013

Maids are working women too

Buried in the news story about India's outrage at how our diplomat was treated by law enforcement officers in New York City (Read: Indian diplomat arrested on visa fraud charges), is the not so uncommon story of treating domestic help poorly. Although in this instance, the jury is still out, a couple of years ago another Indian diplomat was convicted of abusing her domestic help, and asked to pay her compensation (Read: Indian diplomat asked to pay $1.5million to ex-maid). More recently, in India, was the horrifying actions of an MP's wife on her two helpers, which resulted in one of them dying (Read: BSP MP, wife arrested for maid’s death in their Delhi house). I find this disturbing. Why are we mean to people we hire?

I grew up in urban India and as a culture, everyone I knew had maids. Most people had daytime help - people who would come for a couple of hours in the mornings, and more rarely, where the stay-at-home help who came from remote villages. So when I came back from the US, I did the usual thing - I hired a maid. Sensitized by my experiences in the US about being politically correct, I thought hard about what I would call this person. "Servant" was out. That just sounded demeaning. Domestic help? Housekeeper? Maid? Hired help? I think the way we treat them starts with this discovery. How would you describe them?

For me, my maids have been extraordinary. They are hard-working women, who are sometimes the only bread-winners for their family. I have also been very lucky with finding them - my maids have been thoughtful honest people who are extremely professional about their tasks. There are two rules that I announce before I hire one -

Rule # 1: You will take a weekly off.

Rule # 2: Please don't ever lie to me. 


For all the maids I have had, Rule # 1 comes as a surprise. They aren't really sure what I mean by it. I try to explain that everyone who works normally gets a weekly off; If I get one, so must you. I also explain that this is included in the monthly salary. My preference is that they take off Sunday. This weekly off is in addition to sick leave and paid-leave for holidays. When I explain my philosophy to colleagues, they mention how Sunday is the only day they get to supervise their maids. Fair enough, then give her another day off. I don't understand how people can expect their maids to work 7-days a week, but find it perfectly acceptable that they get one or two days off weekly from their office.

Rule # 2 is to assure them that I understand how unpredictable life can be, and would like to accommodate this in our relationship. So, if she wants to take 10-days off, I request that she be honest about this. It disturbs me when she takes off for 6 days and doesn't return on day 7. At the very least, I expect a phone call if there are change in plans. 

My experience with both rules is that maids are wary. Till they start working with me and realize that I mean these rules, they don't open up about it. It is sad that rule # 1 is quite useless because other people that she works for, don't give her an off. There are other taboos that I don't follow - our maids eat and drink from the same cups as we do, they don't handle my hazardous sanitary waste or the compost waste, they are welcome to anything in the fridge/ kitchen to satisfy their hunger. I never shout/ raise my voice. If I find something amiss, I point it out gently.

I consider my maids as an asset; without them, it would be difficult for me to be efficient and functional. I also don't set them tasks that I wouldn't do myself. I might dislike doing the dishes, but I am capable of doing it.

Above all, I think of my maids as working women first. Like me, they have to balance work and their own homes. Unlike me, they don't have the luxury of having someone else do their chores. They have period cramps, annoying in-laws and demanding children. Just like I expect professional treatment in my work place, they should get professional treatment from me. As a professional woman, I should play it forward.

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