I decided when I was eighteen that I would never keep domestic help or, to use a more crude term, servants-having someone else do all my dirty work, when the only difference between them and me was in terms of the opportunities I had been lucky enough to have and they had been deprived of, felt wrong.
Now I know better.
I wasn’t brought up with a battalion of servants available at my beck and call, but they were there- washing my dishes, sweeping my floor, cleaning my bathroom.
As I grew up, and realised the people doing my household chores in my home were only a few years older than me, I felt embarrassed and apologetic. It wasn’t as if I spent the day lying in bed while food and water was brought to me, but I did lead a luxurious life in terms of household responsibilities only because these people were available to do my share of the work for me.
I knew I wasn’t superior to them in any sense, just luckier. And I felt as if employing them was misusing that luck, and exploiting them.
But is it?
It’s a give and take relationship, yes. Like any other profession, people do the work, and get paid in return for it, but the money isn’t very much, because manual labor in a developing nation like India is available in plenty, and so very cheap, the usual demand-supply cycle. With the limited income that comes in after hours of physically demanding labor, the people who spend all day working in our homes are able to maintain their own, sustaining themselves and the ones they love.
Were they to lose this source of income, which is what would happen if everyone they worked for suddenly began to feel the guilt I found myself inflicted with, their quality of life would go downhill, and the loss would be their own, as well as societies’.
Money is everything.
With the money that employers pay them, those who have been denied their fair share of opportunities are able to work towards ensuring their children are not deprived of the same. They educate their offspring, giving them the chance to rid themselves of this burden of menial labor, which is the only source of income they found themselves qualified for. With each generation, then, the household betters itself.
Denying those who work as domestic labourers their income would mean denying their children a better life, and society a step forward.
I think the only way to assist them in this endeavour, is to minimise the exploitation they are made to face in the process of earning their daily bread.
There are several people who live in luxurious homes and have extravagant lifestyles, but pay their domestic help half of what they should, deny them bonuses on festivals, or are frugal with the amount they hand over; there are others who give them sound monetary compensation for their work but give them psychological hell, confronting them when they take a day off, following them around while they carry out their duties, to find faults and tell them off, or unfairly accuse them of misusing their access to the home and its facilities.
The more money the employers have, the worse the treatment their employees seem to receive.
The more expensive localities go as far as allotting separate lifts for domestic workers from the one the residents and visitors use, or building bathrooms outside the home for them so that their employers don’t have to use the same one they do.
The saddest part is that, most often, those who are the employers don’t even consider these things as a wrong, or consider them at all. They’re so ingrained in our society that they seem natural, like breathing or blinking, done without a thought.
I felt guilty about the kind of life I had as compared to the domestic workers employed in my home, and I still do. But the right way to deal with that guilt, I now believe, is not to stop employing the latter, but quite the opposite.
Employment of domestic help must continue, but more effort must be made to ensure that they are treated fairly and are able to achieve the long-term benefits that this employment could bring them and their families – this means sufficient compensation, humane treatment, and additional benefits (monetary and in terms of food, presents, or second hand items). This can only come with empathy, understanding, and a realisation that the social and financial ‘superiority’ of the employer over the employee, in such a case, is not essentially a reflection of potential or effort, but of luck.