When was the last time the “man of the house” dealt with the maid? This piece will make you question everything
4 minutes read
So this is how this phone works, my father explained to my mother over the clatter of dishes being washed in the kitchen. When our maid was done with all the work, my mother gave her the phone and explained to her its working exactly as she had listened. It was a Chinese phone, which my father thought was not of any use for us. This is one of the instances of my father’s indirect communication with our maid. No one found it weird that the same information was passed twice to get to the receiver. I can speak for most households in India when I say that men in our house have very limited or no interaction with the maids. There always exists a stream of awkwardness between the two and it is mainly the women who deal with them and do all the talking. This is not only true for maids or female domestic workers but most domestic workers. The only difference is that there is a whole lot of awkwardness between men and female domestic workers because of their genders and men generally don’t consider it their matter to look into. Moreover, the maids also don’t feel comfortable talking to the men in the house as they somewhere consider them as a higher entity to women and thus, prefer to keep their distance.
Comedian Kenny Sebastian addresses this awkwardness with the maids in his stand-up special Don’t Be That Guy.
This absence of communication conditions one’s mind in a certain way that its rare breach feels unnatural.
Is the motor switched on?, my maid asked in a high pitched voice from the balcony. My father, seeing that my mother couldn’t hear her over the sound of the chimney in the kitchen, replied to her in the same tone, Yes, it is! and I’ll be honest, I let out a low chuckle. It came out of seeing my father replying to our maid like my mother would, it seemed abnormal and amusing.
It made me realise how my brain had been conditioned to see mainly my mother engaging with domestic labour of any kind in our house and now it felt unusual on the rare times there was any direct communication between my father and our maid. This restricted communication is a by-product of the deeper-rooted issues prevailing in our society like patriarchy and gender roles.
Historically, all communities have propagated the idea of women being subservient to men with their only role being serving men and the continuation of progeny. The tasks were defined for males and females and women were expected to adhere to the boundaries of her house. Many social evils were also in practice at that time like sati, child marriage, female infanticide etc. This suggests the foundation of gender bias that is very much prevalent even today. Most Indian households see the women in the family doing all the household chores. In many matrimonial advertisements and family meetings for marriage, knowing how to cook is a parameter that is given good weightage while considering a prospective bride and sometimes also becomes the deciding factor. All of this stems from the mentality that women are supposed to look after the house while men go outside and earn money. In so many Indian television serials, there is a stock character of the memsahib who carries a chaabiyon ka guchha or a bundle of keys and has all the power in the house when it comes to domestic matters. In many urban Indian houses either the whole onus of looking after the house falls on women or is divided between men and women but again, this division follows the norms of gender roles. Women are mostly concerned with the kitchen, cleaning and children whereas men take care of any technical problems like fixing a tubelight, repairing a switch board or drilling a hole in the wall. Naturally, more female domestic workers exist and are preferred over the male ones as they are considered a better fit for the job. Male domestic workers mainly include gardeners, drivers, cleaners and cooks.
Empirical data shows that there 4.75 million people employed as domestic workers in India out of which 3 million are women. A female living in a family with an extremely poor financial condition takes up domestic work almost without thinking twice as she is deprived of education and opportunities. One of the major reasons behind the rise in domestic work in India is that more and more women are now going out and taking up jobs in the organised sector and thus there is a need for domestic workers to take care of the household work that is traditionally expected to be done by a woman. In the absence of a maid, most of the work would be done by the women of the house, so the maid can be seen as their substitute at home. It is, thus, considered a woman’s domain to make sure that the maid does her work properly.
Owing to these stereotypes, it is perceived that women are already equipped with all the skills required to manage a house and thus their knowledge is seen as innate and their work does not qualify as ‘real work’. The collective impact of all these things is that domestic workers are considered as unskilled labour and become a victim of all its negative aspects. The domestic service sector is a highly unorganised one and to be an unskilled female domestic worker adds to the misery. There are no given terms of employment, fixed wages or other benefits and the workers toil in physically and mentally unhealthy conditions of work. Everything is subjective and unregulated- a worker gets different wages, different working conditions and different incentives, all depending upon the discretion of the employer. Women have it worse because they experience harassment, abuse, lack of essential services like water and toilet, long working hours, discriminatory treatment and other kinds of exploitation at work and do not have proper laws to protect them. The employers have a long way to go in understanding the plight of their domestic help.
Tripti Lahiri put this aptly in her book, Maid in India, “In any case, when it comes to domestic help, many progressive people have a blind spot. Professors who study and critique feudalism and the serfdom of rural peasants, underpay and overwork those very rural peasants when they hire them in the city as maids; feminists who are fighting the patriarchy nit-pick and circumscribe the autonomy of their maids to such a degree that their maid becomes too nervous to proceed without asking a million questions, upon which she gets a scolding for being irritating.”
A report by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that women spend 577% more time on household work in a day than men. This normalisation of only girls and women working at home needs to change. As human nature, a person only takes part in an activity if they think it concerns them, so, more and more men will contribute in housework when gender roles are busted and it is taught to them from the starting that both men and women are equally responsible for the welfare of the house. Moreover, there is a need for strong legal aid for domestic workers as their work is highly unrecognised and is not covered by labour laws. It is an alarming state for domestic workers given the huge amount of population that constitutes them.