We got a strange letter at the Foundation this week. You can read it yourself:
Uh oh. Looks like we’re being accused of poaching. And nobody likes a poacher.
I have great respect and sympathy for elderly people living on their own. With a 92 year-old Dad in America and a 97 year old mother-in-law living here with us, I know first hand how complex and challenging their lives can be and how important it is to have trusted, kind, reliable staff looking after them.
In fact, it’s worth paying for.
But the author of this letter – and many elderly residents of Vasant Vihar are just the same – doesn’t seem to get that. The average domestic worker in our neighborhood makes significantly less than the government mandated minimum wage. Employers justify this because they say they are giving them accommodation as well. They don’t mention that the room they provide is usually too small even for one person, let alone the average family of four, and that the bathroom is seldom attached, making daily life a total nuisance in the best of times and a real trial in the rainy season or the winter. This in Vasant Vihar, where their own houses are luxurious and large.
And they don’t even mention the hours a domestic worker is expected to be on duty. They don’t mention it because it’s so hard to say. It could be a nice, normal eight hours a day. Except those eight hours could be from 7 AM to 10 AM and then again from 1 PM to 3 PM and then once more from 8 PM to 11 PM, meaning that a person is effectively on call from 7 in the morning till 11 at night.
Or it could be a slightly busier day. Meaning that the employer’s relatives arrive unexpectedly so the break between 10 AM and 1 PM disappears in making tea and washing dishes and preparing lunch. And then they have clothes that need to be washed and then more relatives who simply must see them and then oh, why not invite them all over for dinner?
So here is the domestic worker (who isn’t really a real person and doesn’t have any of her own concerns – no children to look after; no letters to write; no shopping to do; no bills to pay; no dreams to dream) scurrying around, acting as if someone else’s life is more important to her than her own.
But, to quote our irate letter-writer (IL-W): “It’s so difficult to get reliable servants/maids for old people.”
I wonder why.
But I don’t wonder for long. Domestic workers stop me almost every day as I walk through Vasant Vihar on my way to my office. They ask me if there is any place available in the Foundation, any opening at all. I feel sometimes like driving the kilometer rather than walking just to avoid meeting them on the road each day. One memorable morning I was stopped three times by supplicants. So this line in IL-W’s missive seems a bit crazy to me:
“If their servants (especially maids) are taken away and employed by you, how difficult it is for old people to manage day-to-day life.”
“Taken away and employed by you” implies coercion, force, someone being dragged away against her will and compelled to work at the Latika Roy Foundation. HA HA HA! I wish! In fact the only one being coerced or compelled is me. People come to me with their heartbreaking stories all the time. “I heard you help people,” one particularly irritating hard-luck case used as her opening salvo. On weak days, I hide in my inner sanctum if I hear there is a Seeker after Job on the prowl.
So please. Get real. The last thing I would ever do is “lure” anyone into the Foundation. I’m too busy beating them off with big sticks.
What Mr IL-W actually needs to think about is why domestic staff are leaving indentured servitude in droves and why they prefer to work at the Latika Roy Foundation (or a factory for that matter).
We are a voluntary organization. Our salaries are famously low. Those of us in professional roles could be making 4 or 5 times what we get here if we chose to move onto the corporate stage. But we like the work. We like the people we work with. We like the feeling of respect that is given to every single person we come into contact with here.
And I think, more than the money, that’s why domestic workers want to join the Latika Roy Foundation. They want respect. Our starting salary for a helper is 5000 rupees. A 5% annual cost of living increase guaranteed; up to 10% for exemplary service. Hours which are regular and predictable. Five days a week. Eight hours a day. Tea breaks. Lunch hour. One casual day off each month. All public holidays. 3-weeks paid leave every year. 3 months paid maternity leave. One month paid paternity leave. Medical insurance. Gratuity.
And on the job? Respect. Recognition. The knowledge that if a visitor drops in, they will be introduced as an important member of the team, not ignored as a faceless, nameless drudge in the kitchen.
So, Mr IL-W, here are a few pointers for keeping those priceless, invaluable domestic workers whom the elderly, retired, professional Vasant Vihar residents depend upon:
- Domestic workers have lives. They are not machines. People work eight hours a day and those eight hours are predictable.
- The cost of living affects them just as much as it affects you. You do not bargain at the petrol pump or when you buy a plane ticket to America. Don’t bargain with them. They have the right to a living wage.