Care, trust and respect

DOMESTIC WORKERS AND THEIR EMPLOYERS

Recently, Deepika Mhatre, domestic help and a stand-up comedian, gave a glimpse of how things have changed for her: “Appearing on stage has added to my confidence…some madams who bumped into me near the lifts spoke politely to me for the first time. Earlier, I had been invisible.”

‘Invisibility’ captures the demand by DWs to be ‘seen,’ treated politely and recognised as a fellow human being. A quest, in short, for dignity. Deepika’s stand-up comedy shows about DWs and their employers, points to a puzzle: what does it mean for India’s middle and upper-classes to be able to laugh at stories that paint them — as employers of DWs — in unflattering ways?

Our yearlong research among DWs and their unions in Bengaluru sheds some light here. Whereas employers of DWs occupy a spectrum from the abominable to the tolerable and the genuinely decent ones, almost all employers think of themselves as being ‘nice’ to their DWs. The laughter, then, may gloss over deep discomforts by viewing jokes as about other employers who are ‘not-as-nice-as-me.’

The DWs identify three kinds of employers: crusty stick-in-the-mud conservatives who treat DWs neither as social equals nor as fellow humans doing work of value; a new generation of ‘nice’ employers who do not deprecate DWs, pay good wages, and show some care for the situation of DWs; a third rare set of ‘good’ employers who go beyond being ‘nice’ to viewing DWs as workers doing dignified and valuable work.

These employers are a gradient, rather than discrete categories. They roughly coincide with the move away from viewing DWs as ‘servants’ to ‘maids’ or domestic ‘help’ to ‘workers’.

So, who is a ‘good’ employer of DWs? In these times of rapid growth rates and capital flows, DWs, not surprisingly, construct a ‘good employer’ by imagining and guessing the conditions in corporate India where their employers work. This in turn shapes DWs’ expectations of how employers ought to treat them as ‘workers’ analogously to how the latter are viewed at their places of work, or ‘offices.’

The first assertion is about the value of work. Maria, a DW, reflectively observed: “What does it mean if we say we are domestic workers? We are not lesser than them [employers]. They too go to the office, they sit on a chair and work like this [pointing to herself doing work]…If we don’t go [to] their house to do work they will be unable to go to office. They will have to stay in their house and do the housework. Because we go, it is helpful for them and they go to office… They earn that much salary because of us and because they are educated.”

Highlighting their valuable role in the larger economy as enabling a growing middle and upper-class Indian lifestyle goes beyond DWs’ quest for better wages (which ‘nice’ employers pay).

It challenges employers subtly about their modes of relating to DWs, urging ‘nice’ employers to develop a sense of collegiality with DWs. Like in many ‘offices’, it is now a normal expectation by DWs to be given some food and tea or coffee at their place of work. Further, as Devi, a DW reflects, “sometimes, I forget to say ‘good morning’ to the Boss; then she herself comes and says good morning to me….then I feel good.” The view of employer as ‘Boss’ accompanies a view of the employers’ home as the workplace for the DW.

The implication is that since egalitarian relations (albeit based on the contract) purportedly characterise the modern ‘office,’ it ought to be the foundation for how employers treat DWs at their homes. However, DWs also show their unique position as precarious workers in the informal sector by frequently framing their relationship to employers in more familial tropes, by referring to their workplaces as akka’s (elder sister) home.

Sense of ‘loyalty’

Lalitha, for instance, reflects: “When we work at a house, we try to have a good bond with owners like the way we have with our own family…as long as we work there, it’s our house, later it will be someone else’s house.”DWs thus tend to have a sense of ‘loyalty’ to a home/workplace in ways (they imagine) not too different from how their employers relate to their ‘offices.’

Many DWs speak about ‘trust’ as the touchstone of a ‘good employer.’ Thus Mohini talked about how her employers “would give me the keys and go and I would do work like I would do in my house.” They contrast this negatively with employers who “…come behind us and supervise when working…how much oil you are using…” The slippage from supervision to ‘surveillance’ registers clearly and negatively with DWs.  

Apart from giving good wages like the ‘nice’ employers, the ‘good’ employers show ‘caring and understanding,’ an ability to empathise with the situational context of the DW. The general expectation is that ‘good employers’ would empathise with the need for a weekly off for DWs, as also sense some ‘difficult’ times that a DW was going through and be supportive of her.

The DWs view this as a form of ‘respect.’ As one DW observed: “sometimes when we say we are unwell, they say ‘at least come, do the dishes and go.’ [But], can we just go, do the dishes and come back? Once we go, they make us do all the work and only then send us home…They do not care about our health.”

This care, trust, and respect extends then to the upcoming festival times when DWs seek ‘bonus’ from their employers. Will the ‘nice’ employers become ‘good’ by viewing the ‘bonus’ (just like the minimum wage and weekly leave), not as a charity to be given at a festival time, but as a right of a worker in their midst to a month’s salary? Or, will DWs have to wait for a next generation of ‘enlightened’ employers to emerge?

(Joseph is a faculty and Lobo is research assistant, Azim Premji University; Natrajan is a faculty at William Paterson University, New Jersey, and Visiting faculty at Azim Premji University)

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