Let’s call her Asha. She belongs to the third largest group of workers in India, those who work in other people’s homes. Domestic aid includes housekeepers, cooks, sweepers, cleaners, drivers and watchmen – and perhaps more. Agriculture and construction workers reside on top of that list.
Asha lives in small-town India. She is the mother of two young boys whose father left their mother six years ago. Asha and her boys moved to her parents to scrape through, and Asha followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a maid. Now her work is the only source of income while her parents are taking care of the boys while she is at work.
Official figures show that approximately 4.75 million people work as domestic aid in India. But the same organization (International Labour Organization) claims that the number could just as easily be more than 50 million workers. Not unexpectedly, the majority are women and most work is carried out in urban areas.
Asha is a beautiful tall, sturdy woman who presently works for six families every day. She starts at seven in the morning and is rarely home until twelve hours later. The families that Asha works for all belong to the middle class, now she is taking us to Sarika.
The majority of those who work as domestic aid have no education and they’re often illiterate. They belong to the poorest and most exploited workers in India, not protected by any legislation and thus very dependent on their employer’s goodwill. Not everyone is treated well.
Sarika lives in an apartment block ten minutes away. Asha cannot afford to use an autorickshaw between jobs, she walks from house to house and this is the only break she can allow herself. Nor does she always have time to stop and eat lunch at her own home. The amount and type of work may differ. The salary is not regulated by any authority, but we’re told that most maids in the area earn the same for equal work.
Those who work in other people’s homes do so on different terms. Some are staying with their employer on a permanent basis (‘live-in maid’), while others spend a few hours or large parts of the day with the family (‘live-out maid’). Many are migrants from poor states in India, such as Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. They very often belong to low castes or indigenous people and are among the most marginalized and exploited of India’s population.
We knock on Sarika’s door, she’s a young housewife aged 28. She is married and has a five-year-old son. Together with her is her mother-in-law. For us, it is difficult to imagine that the two women, both at home all day, cannot take care of the simple housework that the small apartment requires. But the culture and the social structure in India makes domestic aid a natural part of middle-class families.
Work is traditionally ruled by caste. Often, food is prepared by those of higher castes, while tasks related to eg. cleaning toilets and emptying rubbish are left to people from lower castes. Therefore, you will often find that several different types of help come and go during the day, all with different tasks. But not every Indian family take caste into account and choose to treat people equally regardless of caste and origin.
Asha goes into the small kitchen to do the dishes. The kitchen is badly maintained and feels slightly unhygienic. The piping above the sink has seen better days and it almost feels like a miracle that water comes out of the tap. Afterwards, floors are swept and washed. This is done every day in India due to dust and dirt that creeps in from all directions.
Asha has worked with this family for many years, Sarika’s first maid was Asha’s mother. She tells us that Asha is like a part of the family. Many domestic workers in India are well treated by their employers, they inherit clothes and are given gifts and food during festivals. Some employers support children’s education. But not everyone is this lucky.
Maids and other domestic aid do not always use the same tableware (plates, cutlery, glasses) as their employer. The maid’s tableware has its own place and is almost invariably made of steel. Live-in maids don’t always have their own room and their privacy is limited. However, it is important to remember that variations are large. Many middle-class (and above) Indians have children who live in other parts of the world and see domestic aid as insurance and security in old age – and thus treat their maids well.
Asha is looking for more work and maybe lighter work. But it is difficult with only a minimum of schooling. She has expenses related to her elderly parents and would like to give her two boys a good upbringing and subsequently a good education.