Are Maids an Invaluable Part of NRI Household?
NRIs prefer having Indian maids as they are affordable and familiar with their way of living.
The thought of domestic helps being the lifeline of an Indian middle-class home doesn’t seem likely to die down soon. The feudal fascination with the idea of having someone around to serve you is intrinsic to most affluent Indias, and those moving overseas are no exception.
Maids in India are aplenty and their salaries often do not burn a hole in one’s pocket. Things, however, are different abroad, with the laws of the land throwing up situations that Indians are not used to. For one, affording a maid abroad is more often than not a luxury, with the strict enforcement of minimum wages in some countries. Indians, who cannot do without a housemaid, are ready to shell out large amounts to retain a good one.
Confused by the laws regarding hiring of maids, Nithya, a working mother based in Qatar, found a way of employing a house help-cum-nanny by paying an agent 20,000 Riyal (approximately Rs 3.5 lakh). “I’m not alone. There are many Indian families who employ maids from India,” she says. “There are several agencies that supply Indian maids who land in Qatar under the sponsorship of local Arabs.”
Nithya was unwavering in her choice of an Indian maid, although there is no paucity of house workers from other nationalities. “Our maid is a pro at cooking Indian delicacies, which means that the kitchen can be out of my to-do list when I am back from work,” she says. “If I were to hire someone from Philippines, who are easily available here, I would have had to spend a lot of time teaching her our way of cooking and living.”
The Indian government as well as most host countries have stringent rules to safeguard the interests of maids working abroad.
In Singapore, for instance, the process of hiring a maid can take up to six weeks, says Neethu Ajay Ghosh. Once you have selected the right maid service agency and finalized your candidate, the employer is required to attend a mandatory employer orientation program where the do’s and don’ts of working with a domestic help are explained. It is only after clearing this process that one can apply for a work permit visa. The maid also has to attend a compulsory safety awareness course before she starts employment. The whole process can take anywhere from four to six weeks.
The long process, however, does not deter Indians from looking homeward to hire a help. In Singapore, maids from Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka constitute a majority of the domestic help workforce, but Indian expats often show preferences for Indian maids.
Ghosh, a Singapore-based engineer, says that she specifically wanted a maid from Kerala, who would be familiar with her language and culture. What added to the list of benefits was that the wage for the Indian maid was less as compared to that for other nationalities. While Ghosh pays her live-in maid about 450 Singapore dollars (approximately Rs 22,000), an Indonesian maid would charge double the amount.
“The maid I have is more flexible,” says Ghosh. “She is willing to work even if I ask her to help me with some chores, even after her work hours. But I can’t expect the same from a Filipino domestic help as they retreat to their private quarters after work hours.”
Maid service agencies say that Indians have a tendency to treat their domestic helps as part of their “family,” but workers from other countries usually prefer to be treated as employees who stay at their employers’ homes. They prefer to be professional, wishing to adhere to work hours and choosing to have their privacy.
“Domestic help can never be treated like family members, irrespective of what people may claim,” says Meenakshi Gupta Jain, the CEO of Helper4u, a Mumbai-based maid service agency. “The nature of their work makes them different than the other members of the family. Most homes do not allow them to sit on chairs, use their toilets, share meals or give them time off, or allow them to pursue their hobbies or studies. So, how are they like family?”
It is for this reason that it is imperative that they be treated as employees, and be given their dignity, respect, minimum wages and rights, she emphasizes. “At the end of the day, the domestic workers do not work because they are looking for a family but because they have to make a living like all of us,” she adds.
Members of the Indian middle class are wired in a way that we cannot do without domestic helps, whether in India or abroad. “Because labor in India is very cheap, every family in the coungtry has at least one domestic help,” says Anupam Sinhal, the co-founder of Bookmybai, an online platform through which home owners can hire domestic helps. When these families migrate to foreign locations they tend to bring or hire maids from India as foreign labor is expensive. Singapore and United Arab Emirates are the two countries from where they get most enquiries for domestic maids, says Sinhal.
Indian domestic workers abroad make more than their Indian counterparts — the monthly wage of a full-time maid is between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 — but their foreign employment is often accompanied by fears of mistreatment. The trepidation is not unfounded.
Instances of abuse of foreign maids by their well-to-do employers are not rare. Just last month, an Indian-origin former woman warrant officer in the Singapore Army was jailed for four months and three weeks for abusing and beating her Indian maid.
In 2011, Prabhu Dayal, an Indian diplomat in New York, was accused of treating his domestic helper as a “slave” by forcing her to work long hours, confiscating her passport and making her sleep in a storage room. She was reportedly paid only $300 per month, which was far less than the $10 per hour in her contract. A couple of years later, Devyani Khobragade, the then Deputy Consul General of the Consulate General of India in New York City, was charged by U.S. authorities with committing visa fraud in order to gain entry for an Indian woman to the United States for employment as a domestic worker. She was also charged with paying the maid less than the minimum wage.
The working conditions of housemaids abroad is an international issue, and India has adopted the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers, which aims to safeguard the interests of domestic workers in the nation and overseas.
Over the years, various rules have been put in place to ensure their safety and well-being. In the UAE, the process to hire a maid involves depositing Dh 9,200 at the Indian Embassy/Consulate, providing prepaid mobile phones and giving the maid a return air ticket to India every year. A maid’s minimum salary should not be less than Dh 1,100 per month and she cannot be made to work more than nine hours every day.
Maid service agencies also check with their candidates several times to ensure that they aren’t being ill-treated. Safety of the maid is paramount to them, says Sinhal, adding that his agency ensures that she is provided with a prepaid cellphone so she can contact her family in case of any abuse.
However, if an employer is not satisfied with the maid allocated to his family, there is little option but to put up with it. Although most agencies provide the option to replace the maid, the employer is responsible for her visa and tickets, which may become a costly proposition.
A steady supply of maids from India has ensured that NRIs can concentrate on their work while the maid holds the fort at home. With more women pursuing their ambitions and entering the workforce, a domestic help is often seen as a necessity who takes up the role of the caretaker of the household, vested with the responsibility of running things smoothly.
But are they too dependent on the domestic helpers? “We are,” says Sinhal, adding that having a maid allows the homemaker to pursue a career, while the maid, in turn, earns a livelihood.
Indians are over dependent on maids just because they are cheap labor in the country, points out Jain. “Domestic work is the biggest employment generation sector in India and still has the lowest regulations around it,” she says. “The day we have a minimum wages bill passed by the government for domestic workers, and ensure basic rights for them we will start respecting them like other working women/men.”
(Some names have been changed upon request.)