City Life – Professional Domestic Maids & Cooks, Around Town
Groomed help for the house.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The maid is in the mall, bar-coded. Standing in a glass display case, she is in a spotless cotton sari, barely there make-up, buffed nails and no jewellery. She understands English and can rustle up bouillabaisse. She is holding verification papers that certify she has never kissed a lover on the terrace and has never kidnapped a baby. Her price: upwards of Rs6,000 a month.
This robot-like superwoman does not exist, definitely not for such a bargain. But middle-class households in Delhi – used to Rs1,000-a-month, part-time cooks – are increasingly willing to spend more money for somebody like her, a professionally groomed domestic worker. And there are companies which are opening up to meet the demand. In Delhi, a company searches for household help in slums – the demand is too high and the supply too low.
We are witnessing the start of a home service staff industry. Largely unorganized and often exploited, this domestic army is gradually being streamlined into a professional workforce. Until a few years ago, well-paid, trained domestic workers were employed only by wealthy expats. That is changing.
“At any given time in Delhi and Gurgaon, 60,000 people are looking for maids,” says Shawn Runacres, managing director, Domesteq Service Solutions, a Delhi-based domestic staff placement and training agency, a pioneer in the still nascent industry. Headquartered at Sardar Patel Marg, the heart of the Capital’s diplomatic area, the agency was established by Ms Runacres, a former diplomat’s wife, to assist expats with Indian household help. Three years later, in 2010, Ms Runacres discovered that more requests for trained domestic staff were coming from Indians.
In 2011 she branched out by setting up an office in Gurgaon, the town adjoining Delhi that is home to several multinational firms and their highly paid employees. “In Delhi, 60% of our clients are Indians,” says Ms Runacres. “In Gurgaon, they constitute 90%.”
A similar model is being adopted by Partners in Prosperity, a Delhi-based NGO. “We’re trying to do a Domesteq in mid-level income neighbourhoods like Shalimar Bagh and Anand Vihar,” says founder Manab Chakraborty. Started in March 2011, Mr Chakraborty’s organization is reaching out to potential workers in their villages in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. “We tie up with local NGOs and panchayats, get the women here and train them to work as maids in homes and hospitals.” Recently, they trained eight people in a Vasant Kunj flat to test the curriculum, which included lessons in self-dignity, as well as the operation of gadgets such as microwaves and washing machines. Mr Chakraborty plans to charge a commission from the maids’ employers.
The salaries of domestic help in India are abysmally low. A full-time maid in Kalpataru Estate, an upper middle-class apartment society in Andheri, Mumbai, gets Rs 4,500 a month. The same maid would earn Rs 2,500 at a flat in Vardhman Apartment Society in Mayur Vihar, Delhi. At a bungalow in Hyderabad’s upscale Jubilee Hills, a full-time maid gets Rs 4,500-5,000. According to a government decree, the minimum monthly wage for unskilled workers in Delhi is Rs 6,084.
The case of maids is being taken up at the highest level of policy-making. In April 2011, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council recommended at least 15 days of paid annual leave and a minimum per diem wage of Rs115 for the 4.5 million domestic workers across the country.
“In India, many aspects of their work, including work hours for domestic workers, are not regulated,” says Reiko Tsushima, senior gender specialist at the India office of the International Labour Organization (ILO), based in Delhi. “There is also a need to regulate the placement agencies, which recruit girls from villages, promising them jobs in urban households. Many of these agencies run fly-by-night operations, with nothing more than a cellphone.”
Pointing to the ministry of labour’s certificate-level skill development initiative for domestic workers, Ms Tsushima says, “This may assure the employers that the worker is coming with some skills and also facilitate her placement in a household that is willing to pay for the appropriate skill level.” The ILO is in the process of finalizing international labour standards for domestic workers, which will provide guidelines to member states to reframe legislation and policies. In April 2011, the ILO, along with the Union ministry of labour and the Delhi government, issued smartcards (which have a USB drive storing the worker’s police verification, previous employer’s recommendation, etc.) to 450 domestic workers after training them for six months.
Most training agencies take commission from employers, instead of charging maids. Domesteq charges a lifetime registration fee of Rs 2,000, along with an amount equivalent to six weeks’ salary of the maid they provide to the client. The maids registered with the agency are, however, not contract-bound and are free to get a job on their own. That seldom happens, since the agencies provide better deals. First, the maid is sent for an interview with the prospective employer and if both like each other, there is a trial period of a few days in which either of the two can opt out. Later, if the employer complains about the maid’s inefficiency—she can’t handle the vacuum cleaner, for instance—the agency sends its trainer. If the problem recurs, or if the maid is not turning out to be as “groomed” as the employer wished for, she is replaced. If the woman disappoints another client, she gets blacklisted.
For reasons that cannot be held against them, the people who have honed their skills working with expats don’t want to be employed by Indians. They get used to high salaries, weekends off, annual bonuses and dignified treatment. All this, according to many maids The Delhi Walla talked to, is rare in Indian households. “Earlier, I was with Indians,” says Dharma, a cook currently working for an Australian family in Gurgaon. “There was more chik-chik (cribbing) and less pay. Foreigners work by routine.” In an expat home, if the dinner time is 8pm, the cook will lay the table sharp at 8. If the family is out, she will keep the food in the refrigerator and leave. In an Indian home, the cook waits till the mistress returns.
Many Indian households have kaamwalis, the part-time maids who sweep the floor, wash the dishes, understand only the local language, are seriously underpaid and often shouted at. After years of economic growth, more and more “global Indians”—at home with both sushi and saag—are discovering that it is not okay to scream at the domestic staff, if just for the sake of pretence. Guests are impressed if the maid speaks at least a smattering of English.
For five years, a woman from “a nearby slum” worked part-time, meaning morning and evening, in the house of Amit Gogia, a manager at a Swiss medical firm who lives with his sister and grandmother in Gurgaon. The maid was paid Rs 2,000 a month. Four months ago, Mr Gogia hired a new woman, Radha, through Domesteq, for a monthly pay of Rs 6,000, the same as that of a cook in a bungalow in upper-crust Maharani Bagh, south Delhi. “The way she presents herself is worth the price,” says Mr Gogia. “Radha dresses neatly and knows etiquette. She is someone whom I can trust with my granny.”
Trust is not a monopoly of this well-groomed workforce. Traditional Indian households might not have the clockwork efficiency of expat homes, but many consider their long-time kaamwalis to be almost family members, and bouts of what Dharma calls chik-chik are punctuated by pots of tea and neighbourhood news shared by mistress and employee. With the breakdown of large families and the constant move of working couples from city to city, such bonds are difficult to establish. Therefore, the made-to-order maid, preferably full-time, figures high in the shopping list.
Before being trained and placed by Domesteq, Alam Ali was an office “boy” in Gurgaon with a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. Four months ago, he began as a housekeeper in a family for the same salary. “My life improved,” he says. “Earlier I was working for 9 hours daily. Now I have to work for 7 hours.” Mr Ali recently got a Rs 2,000 hike.
In the Indian context, the lines between nannies, cooks and housekeepers are blurry in most cities. The maid is expected to do a bit of everything, so the agencies groom an “all-rounder”. A small army has already been trained for the march. Started in 2010 by a former CEO of Bharti Telecom, Empower Pragati gives vocational training in the formal and informal sectors, and groomed its first batch of housemaids in Delhi in June 2011. “We’ve sourced people from slums,” says Preetham Rodrigues, city head, operations. The 160-hour training includes lessons in health, hygiene, baby care, patient attendance, old-age care and cooking. Extra hours are allotted for the chosen specialization. Those who clear the course are also eligible for provident fund. The company is flooded with enquiries from prospective employers. It has expanded operations to Bangalore and Kolkata.
The slums are a happy hunting ground for agencies looking to enlist service staff. Unlike old-money Indian households or expat homes, the working couples are inclined to take day maids, which makes it easier for the latter to commute between apartments and jhuggis.
Domesteq regularly explores the jhuggis of Delhi and Gurgaon, looking for migrants willing to work in the kothis, the desi lingo for apartments in the gated communities.
One hot afternoon I followed followed Sunil Kumar, the agency’s coordinator, as he made his way through the alleys of a shantytown just behind a high-rise complex in Gurgaon that houses the Microsoft, Canon and Royal Bank of Scotland offices. Stopping at a corner where women were putting coconut oil in their hair, Mr Kumar asked, “Does anybody work here?”
“Would you like to work in a house?”
“About Rs 8,000 a month.”
The women started asking questions: “How many hours daily? How are the people? Will there be soshan (exploitation)?”
Of the 25 people Mr Kumar typically talks to on such an expedition, at least five come to the agency’s office. One might agree to come for the two-day orientation class run by Domesteq. At one such session, some of the women in a group of 12 were wide-eyed at household items—one fiddled with a roll of toilet paper as if it was a museum artefact; a duster was passed around as a work of art; silver foil and apron were a puzzle; a vacuum cleaner seemed to be a missile from Mars. All the time, the tips came thick and fast from trainer James Xavier Joseph: “Keep your hair combed. Come in clean and simple clothes. The bindi must not be big. Not too much kaajal, please, nor too many bangles. Avoid long mangalsutras. Don’t dab the parting in your hair with excessive sindoor (it may fall into the curry).”
The quality of life doesn’t depend on money alone. Geeta Devi, who worked as a part-time maid in several households near her slum in Gurgaon, went through Domesteq’s two-day training early this year and was placed as a day maid at a bungalow. Her monthly salary of Rs 5,000 is a little less then her previous income. “But I don’t have to rush from one home to another,” says Ms Devi. “The training helped me in knowing things that I was not aware of. Now, besides cooking and sweeping, I can take care of the baby and can even look after an old man. My employers are happy with me and I’m happy with them.”
In April 2011, Domesteq held a five-day induction session for 20 young ragpickers from west Delhi. This threw up an interesting psychological aspect. “Though they have been picking garbage all their lives, they were not comfortable with the idea of cleaning somebody else’s toilet,” says Zeenu James, the trainer who conducted the classes. “I asked them what’s better: picking trash from the gutter or cleaning the water closet.” She soon got her reply. All the ragpickers are now eager to switch professions. They are expected to start at the lowest salary level of Rs 5,500 a month.
Ms James, a professional chef, also holds cooking classes for maids. Paid for by employers (most of whom are Indians) who want to garnish their table with global cuisine, these classes introduce the “student” cooks to olive oil, asparagus and Thai ginger. They learn how to grate cheese and shave chocolate and sterilize vegetables. Back in their employer’s home, they faithfully recreate recipes of Madhur Jaffrey and Jamie Oliver. In the job bazaar, their price increases by Rs 5,000 a month.
The market, clearly, is on the side of maids, cooks and drivers. They are becoming a reflection of the household. It’s a win-win situation. The employers get professionalism; the workers get dignity and decent pay.
Contact Domesteq 011 4651 4338, 4605 1442 (Delhi), 0124 3069168/69 (Gurgaon)
The domestic scenes