Mornings in an average Indian urban household, invariably begin with the arguments our mothers, wives or mother in laws have with the maid servant – commonly called the ‘bai’ in Mumbai. Sometimes it is about the irregularity of time, at others the inefficiency of work. Yet other times the negotiation over leaves and wages. We hear it day in and day out but rarely wonder what it is about the relationship between employer and maid servants that makes it so fragile?
Two ideas emerge from this questioning. One, there is a character profiling of domestic work. Domestic work evidently has a gendered perspective, with the majority of those involved in domestic work being women – some sort of naturalised care givers. It also has an ethnicity-caste dimension. Close to every up-market neighbourhood in Mumbai, one finds a tribal, dalit and/or migrant basti and over time the community of a certain caste/tribe becomes a community of cooks, drivers, nannies and maids.
Sociologist Raka Ray talks about the nature in which most of us living in the big Indian cities take domestic help as a given – almost an entitlement. She also warns of a conditioning of the minds of impressionable children and young adults – not only about the gendered nature of domestic work but also about the notion that some women are inferior than others. This is coupled with a kind of ‘professionalisation of domestic work’ that starts to make very stringent the lines between the employing class and the employee class. It equates payment for services with an entitlement with the right to demand service. This professionalisation, pretends to remove all personal relations from domestic work, making it an impersonal and specified job title like any other – Assistant Engineer or Junior Manager or Associate Professor.
Secondly, this professionalisation is however and fortunately so, not as complete as it often portrays itself to be. This is the second feature of domestic work as it has emerged in the Indian society. Domestic work is a highly unregularised and individualised work sphere mainly because of the nature of work being in someone else’s personal space- making employer regulation difficult. Negotiations whether with respect to timing, nature of work, leaves and/or bonuses all take place more or less at an individual level, with a rough minimum wage that comes to be prescribed by the nature of the neighbourhood and purchasing power of its inhabitants.
Though many fall through the cracks, domestic maids have the space to negotiate with employers and ensure that domestic work doesn’t become a hereditary profession. When one speaks to domestic maids, many speak about their stints in construction work in cities or as casual farm labour in their rural homes, both of which they said, were physically strenuous and involved mobility from one jobsite to other because of their temporary and seasonal nature – the latter becoming an obstruction to children’s education. Domestic work, instead, gives them a sense of stability because of its large demand in the big cities. In addition, it gives them a home, even if in a slum – which many preferred to the gypsy life of construction site workers.
This creates a unique tug of war for space among women in the urban setting. As increasingly more middle class women enter white collar service industries, they need more assistance with domestic chores, making it a perpetual tug of war for autonomy between the madam and the bai. Both are fighting traditional boundaries of patriarchy and aspirations for a better life- albeit at very different levels. This said, as the demand for domestic help rises and so do people’s purchasing powers, the supply also swells and one may assume that this results in a generational churn in the providers of domestic help. Domestic maids’ families are able to achieve some amount of vertical mobility and ensure that it doesn’t become a hereditary profession. A large number of those employed in the lower end retail and IT service industries report having had mothers who were domestic maids (or even continue to be). The vacuum created by those leaving domestic work is filled by a yet more vulnerable population of women – a whole generation of dalit maids in Mumbai has been replaced by newer dalit migrants from within Maharashtra and by migrants from Bangladesh – leading to yet another series of struggles and negotiations for that much-deserved holiday or that minimal hike in wage.