Maid and unmade in India: Tripti Lahiri on her book on domestic workers in India

Tripti Lahiri on what doesn’t surprise her about the class war in Noida and her book on domestic workers in India.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Updated: July 31, 2017 4:47:46 pm
Balance of power: The protests at Noida’s Mahagun Moderne. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

In her book, Maid in India, Tripti Lahiri reports from the trenches of an often-invisible class conflict – that between the millions of India’s domestic workers and their middle-class or upper middle-class employers. That conflict flared up in spectacular disorder in a recent apartment complex in Noida, but its lines are negotiated daily in upper-caste, upper-class homes: can the maid sit on the dining table? Where can she sleep? Is she allowed to open a fridge to pour herself a glass of water? In this email interview, the Hong Kong-based Lahiri, who is Asia bureau chief for Quartz, speaks about how what led her to write this book, why employers in India organise against their workers and why the life of maids represent both a fulfilment and denial of the promise of economic mobility. Excerpts:

What set you off on writing this book? Was it a particular case of abuse?

It wasn’t a case of abuse, actually quite the opposite. It was spending time with a woman whom I first got to know as a cook, but who I realized over time was a significant figure in her own neighbourhood—a banker for other women, a one-person character verification service, and so much more. I realized I knew very little about the lives of people who worked as help—away from their jobs in our homes—and it made me curious.

Is there anything that surprised you about the recent events at Mahagun Moderne, Noida – a maid who went missing, her family which allegedly attacked an apartment complex, and the subsequent backlash from the state, including a central minister who sided with the employers?

One thing that doesn’t surprise me is that a minister would side with employers. That’s happened before as well, when a minister said homes shouldn’t be treated like factories, speaking about demands to better regulate work in homes. I’m also not surprised to hear the employers referring to the migrant workers as “Bangladeshi illegals”—though I’m surprised by how quickly those comments surfaced. I am not saying there aren’t any undocumented immigrants working in India. But the speed with which the employers sought to undercut the complaints of the migrant workers by suggesting they don’t have any status to demand rights was astonishing. I am surprised that the workers revolted, because of the likelihood of facing repercussions from police and municipal authorities, or losing their jobs, and while we still don’t know all the details, I would understand that to mean there were long-simmering unaddressed grievances against employers.

What are the number of domestic workers in India?

The National Sample Survey Office in its most recent survey of employment put the numbers at 3.5 million or so, which seems an underestimate. For context, Brazil, about the same population as Uttar Pradesh, counts seven million domestic workers. At the upper end, the estimate is nearly 20 million workers from the government-backed Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council.

Tripti Lahiri Tripti Lahiri. (Photo: Anthony Wallace)

How have wages in their sector gone up with time and economic progress?

It would take more research to see if real wages for the most basic kind of housework have gone up over time, excluding the effects of inflation. One historical figure I extrapolated from suggests not. That was a nine-rupee-a-month pay recommendation for a cook that I found in a housekeeping manual written for British memsahibs in the late 19th century, the equivalent of about 6,000 rupees in 2006, about what people in Delhi were paying for cooks then, if not less. However for people with skills—those who can cook more than one kind of cuisine, who can do some management, i.e. dealing with other staff or delivery people, who speak English or are experienced in childcare, their wages are definitely above the market average in a city like Delhi—somewhere between two to three times as much.

Recently, a Mumbai apartment complex decided to fix wages for particular kinds of work, and sacked those who wanted more. How is it that, in India, the employers seem to be organising against workers–and not the other way round?

Class identity is shaped not just by money, parentage or education, but also by physical location and architecture. Apartment complexes, which have always been there for a long time in Mumbai, but are now increasingly common around other big Indian cities, are places where affluent people can solidify their class identities around their common interests—which in this case involves not paying more than a certain amount for help. Employers can more easily forge solidarity in free time spent socializing at their housing society and through Resident Welfare Associations, than can workers scattered in different places, or who really can’t afford to lose a job. Still, it can happen, for example among workers who live side-by-side and work in a single large complex—such as in the case of Mahagun.

Why did you choose to focus on live-in maids? And how are their working conditions different from part-time help?

I focused on them because they are the most likely to come from far away, have the least in common with their employers, and are the most invisible of workers.

 An overwhelming majority of these workers are women, many of them girls. They are the third “harvest” in farmlands of Jharkhand, Bengal, as you write. Has this influenced pay, working conditions or even government attitudes to this sector?

I believe the Jharkhand state government and police are concerned in the wake of different incidents involving young women from the state. The police have become much more active about pursuing trafficking cases while the state is supposed to be looking at steps to ensure something called “safe migration.” This could involve, say, having local village pradhans keep track of people leaving for work. I have heard this talked about for a while but I’m not sure how they could do this effectively without impinging freedom of movement.

 Is it common for live-in domestic workers in Indian middle-class homes to be entitled to a few basics — a bed to sleep on, a washroom to use, a lunch break? How successful have companies like The Maid Company, which seeks to be a professional placement agency, been in getting these to them?

How many full-time cooks or cleaners do you know who get overtime pay, paid leave or any sorts of benefits? I think entities like The Maids Company, which are very few in number, can’t reshape the landscape of these relations, but perhaps can start a conversation. Major change has to come from some combination of employers realising that very often they are in the wrong on matters ranging from pay to general behavior—but we don’t seem to be very close to that—and changes in the law. There have to be basic rules so that people have an official benchmark on pay, days off and benefits. It’s much easier to be decent when a standard is laid out to follow, rather than when you’re left entirely free to decide on your own. Because even if you start out with lofty ideals, it’s very easy to default to what’s most convenient for you.

How do existing inequalities of caste and gender play into the way maids and their work is treated?

Inequalities of religion play a big role in domestic help hiring. Employers are often upper-caste Hindus, while the help may be Christian, or far more often, Muslim. It’s very common for impoverished Christian tribal women and Muslim Bengali women to come to Delhi to work as full-time help. Employers in any case don’t see the help as people on par with themselves, and the religious and language divide compounds that. But it’s cheaper to hire someone from a remote part of the country, and often—though not always—they are more likely to be submissive and timid than a woman who is herself raised in the city.

 How successful have other developing countries been in regulating this sector?

The Philippines, which is also not a rich country, has made some steps on this front, and requires not only a minimum wage for domestic help but some benefits. Brazil is another example. In 2014, it passed a law that required help to be registered, set limits on working hours, and required employers to pay into a fund for workers.

How does this sector reflect on the promise of mobility and aspiration that has been held out since liberalisation?

In some ways it reflects both the highest of hopes and the darkest of disappointments. I think of someone like the man from Uttar Pradesh who came to work as a boy after his father died. Now he’s married, with a young daughter and has set up as a placement agency. I imagine he’ll spend for his daughter to go to and English-medium school, perhaps to college and on to a white-collar job. Then there are parents I met whose daughters came to the city to survive and pursue a similar chance to do better, and vanished or became estranged from them.

Finally, what explains the Indian middle-class Indian’s pervasive blindness to the glaring discrimination they practice in their homes?

It’s very difficult to see as wrong a way of dealing with people that you may have learned from your parents or that is no different than what everyone around you is doing. Relations in India of all kinds are very hierarchical and there’s no reason this would be any different.

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