On Labour Day: What ‘Memsahibs’ Would say if They Were ‘The Help’

A Suitable Maid: The Domestic Fantasies of a Middle Class that Just Can’t Bear to Make its Own Bed, Pick up its Socks or Take the Dog for a Walk

From a nose ring-wearing, saree clad, tray-carrying naree, to a light-footed Cinderella cheerily wielding a duster, agency ads spell out a fantasy maid who will greet us in the morning with coffee, send us off to work and clean up our trail of towels and pyjamas, while we return to a house with the fragrance of peas pulao wafting in from the kitchen. Basically a loyal sprite with pleasing looks who puts you above all else, who appears when you need her and vanishes when the work is done.

From a domestic goddess to a light-footed Cinderella– how the perfect maid is often portrayed in ads. (Photo: ImgFlip.com)

Only, our Indian middle class has got so used to having her (or him) around that they don’t want the vanishing part to happen. They want her there all the time, any time of the day or night.

Need to draw the curtains? Holler for the Help. Can’t find that office badge you chucked somewhere? Holler for the Help. Baby’s nose needs a wipe? Holler for the Help.

And then there was an advertisement for a household close circuit camera telling us just how we can keep our eyes on that devious maid who may eat up our toddler’s lunch before he does.

So while we’re busy deciding whether we love her or hate her, domestic maids in India find themselves among the more exploited sections of informal labour, whose isolation, shut away as they are inside private homes, compounds their inability to help themselves.

What is it that makes India one of the worlds most Help-dependent countries?

Nilita Vachani, Filmmaker and Writer on Modern Day Slavery  We are this dependent because we CAN be this dependent and get away with it. If there is any part of the world with such inequality as in India with very poor people willing to do anything to survive, the same thing would happen. In the US this dependency would happen if they could afford it. But they can’t afford it since labour laws have been laid down that you have to pay at least $15 for an hour. No wonder people there are not dependent on round-the-clock help.

So if help is so readily available and so easily at hand, why the frequent complaints about “You just can't get a good domestic Help”? What these nostalgia trips are really saying is that they miss that loyalty of lore that their grandparents seemed to have from their staff. Loyalty becomes measured by non-stop availability. When paying a person full time becomes ‘owning’ their time.

Full time staff is expected to be unquestioning, ever present, and ever responsive to intercom bell or languid yell, especially if they live on the premises.

Mala, 40, domestic maid, Delhi (name changed)“I look after her one-year-old and three-year-old. Sometimes I cry because there so much work to do.. Sometimes I cry because I have no time for my own children, to send them to school or to see if they want something. If I go to the quarters to see how my daughter is madam keeps saying “gaayab rahtee hai’.

According to the National Domestic Worker’s movement, there are about 4.2 million domestic workers in India officially, with unofficial figures at 50 million. The average full time worker works anywhere from 8-18 hours a day.

While some states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Rajasthan do have a minimum wage for domestic workers, the Domestic Worker’s Welfare Bill of 2016 which addresses working conditions, hours of work and days off, remains pending in parliament.