There was that time when Gauri Singh hired an employee. She seemed elderly but was probably younger, much younger, early middle age. A 40-year-old who could pass for 60. But in her line of work, Singh is often confused about the age of her employees.

Most of her employees are married at 13, mothers at 15. “By the time they are 30, they are old women. By 40, they are broken. They are finished, they just cannot do hard physical labour anymore,” Singh told me about the women of The Maids’ Company.

After having worked for two or three days, Singh’s new employee disappeared.

About a week later, Singh learned that her body had been discovered. She had been found dead – robbed of the gold chain around her neck and her earrings, her sari hiked up above her legs, blouse torn and with blue marks around her neck. There was a strong suspicion of sexual violence.

“She used to live in a particularly criminal slum and by the time I got to the police, they had already cremated her and closed the file,” says Singh. “I stood in that police station horrified, and I screamed at the officer in charge. I told him that the criminals he was not stopping today – because the crimes were happening to the poor – one day they would attack someone richer. And then all hell would break loose for him.”

A few months later another employee, a 19-year-old trainee desperate for money, prostituted herself for Rs 7,500 to a local man in her area.

That man led her to a gang rape by 17 men. She was thrown out of the van in the early morning hours in front of her home in the slum. The community shunned her, and she was left to bleed at the back of her aunt’s house.

A day after the incident Singh located her in her aunt’s home, but before she could help the girl, in the family’s panic to hide from the social shame, they sent the girl off to the village without medical attention. Soon, Singh heard that the girl was dead.

This time, the officer listened to her patiently and then gave her some advice. “ ‘Madam,’ he told me,” Singh remembers, “ ‘what kind of business are you doing? This is very dangerous for you. Next we will be coming to meet you in jail.’ I didn’t know what to say.”

The Maids’ Company employs some of the poorest women in India, an invisible workforce from all over, in the town of Gurgaon.

A satellite city of the Indian capital, its groundwater tables are hitting crisis levels even as new Jacuzzi-sporting penthouses relentlessly rise to the sky. These women are trained by Singh –  who studied social policy and development at the London School of Economics – and her partner, Indu Bagri, and their managers in domestic work. Cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of children – the all-woman company provides all these services for a price. They are a new and unprecedented link between the two faces of India, perpetually in contact but increasingly distant.

It is a complex, delicate, even dangerous balance that Singh negotiates. To glimpse inside her business is to comprehend India’s many layers, static and kinetic, those ever-darting fl ickers of aspiration and of social ascendancy...

The residents in their tall towers in Gurgaon have made sanctuaries of guarded peace amid the melee. Their remove keeps them secure against the public chaos. But they don’t have the easy access to domestic help that they had in their previous homes, where they would ask a neighbour about their maid. They would stand on the balcony and beckon maids going to other apartments. Ask them where they were from. Ask their names, where they lived, if they could come do the dishes every morning.

But no maids pass by anymore.

They could not if they wanted to. The apartments have three layers of security checks around their manicured gardens. They are beautiful but secluded. No entry without verifi cation.

So these days, many maids come from agencies. But most are crooked fly-by-night operators who exploit both the clients and the workers. In a worst-case scenario, some agencies run modern-day slave labor operations: the salary is paid by the client to the agencies and is held back for months or only paid in parts to the workers to keep them in perpetual bondage to the agent.

Hiring maids used to be all about unverified, even unverifiable, reaching out, talking to your neighbours, trusting their judgment. But while sullen, shiny Gurgaon is an ever-expanding city – its population grew in the decade between 2001–2011 from 1 to 1.6 million – it is not a trusting city.

This town of villages is also full of ex-villagers who are now flush with cash after the sale of their lands to real estate developers but whose medieval lifestyles are at odds with the credit card– fueled modernity in which everything can be priced and purchased. Their sense of value has for centuries been determined differently.

Gauri Singh, who loves to motorcycle and sometimes gets impatient with Gurgaon’s errant SUV-laden traffic, says she is sometimes afraid to give a speeding driver an earful.

He just might pull out a gun. In this universe full of unlicensed, illegally purchased guns, an angry young woman behind a wheel – especially one in a car smaller than theirs – is the ultimate assault on the ego. Singh wants to change all that. From 2003 to 2007, she worked at the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), one of the biggest not-for-profi t women’s self-help groups in India, which brings economic security, jobs and livelihood to the most vulnerable. It is a curious choice because Singh herself stands at the nexus of these colliding worlds.

She comes from a wealthy family in Punjab. Her late father was a prominent, socially well-connected architect. Her mother too is a celebrated architect, and her brother, a structural engineer, runs a successful real estate company that, among other things, builds luxury resorts in Southeast Asia. Singh’s first degree was in architecture. She spent some time in the family business. But once she learned how to organize the poor at SEWA, it became clear that this was her calling. “I first thought of doing this as a not-for-profit. But then my entire strategy would be donation- and grant-based. I would never be able to create any assets or ownership for those who work with me,” says Singh.

“To me the idea that the women who work with me, most of them barely literate, own a part of this company is a very powerful one,” says Singh. The Maids’ Company has 20 percent of its equity in a reserved pool that is owned by a cooperative trust of the workers. It has 200 employees, an equal number of clients and a turnover of Rs 2 crore in 2012–2013.

Besides the equity, what sets The Maids’ Company apart from placement agencies or the fly-by-night operators is the basket of employee welfare services that have been designed specifically for an all-women workforce.

The equity supports these services. The employee welfare basket contains the following services: for cases of domestic violence the company provides a halfway house, a counselor for both the worker and her husband, and a link with the women’s police cell; for daily sustenance, interest-free loans, bank accounts and linkage to insurance are provided; for health security they provide home visits by a nurse, a 50 percent subsidy for all OPD (outpatient) costs and an interest-free health loan for inpatient expenses. These services address the issues faced by urban poor women, thereby ensuring a steady work force.

During her work at SEWA, especially while working with women at construction sites, Singh observed that domestic work was one of the safest environments in which women from poor backgrounds could earn money. It was where some of the poorest women – and some of the most desperate women – were engaged. More and more women in the low-income segment in urban areas were choosing domestic work, citing the flexibility of hours as the main reason.

Women from low-income backgrounds typically find work at only a few places in India. The young, able-bodied but very poor work on construction sites as human carriers – they usually don’t get any skilled labor but work transporting material. Women who have some education, especially if they are able to comprehend – even better speak – a smattering of English, get “indoor jobs,” for instance as assistants at a mall where they can stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment.

But the women Singh works with are at the bottom of the food chain.

They are sometimes not young enough to sustain long stretches of heavy labor on a construction site, nor do they have the skills for better-paying indoor work. They also often have children and cannot do eight- or ten-hour shifts. “Working in homes is the best solution for the poorest women until they can upgrade their skills and move on. They can choose to work for four hours or six hours. The work is easy to learn and it is far more sheltered than a construction site or a mall,” says Singh.

“But I also figured that I could only do this if I completely reinvented what domestic service really meant. For one – we provide a service. We don’t provide labour.” Most Indians, even in the wealthiest pockets, tend to think of domestic laborers as “servants” or as people with no really fi xed terms of service or standardized pay. This does not mean that conditions for domestic work in India have not improved steadily and incessantly over the years, but terms and conditions remain fl uid.

Singh is trying to change that by offering “packages” of work hours during which domestic help is provided – four, six, eight or ten hours at different price points. The company does not provide help that lives with the client family and is therefore available 24/7, which is what many clients who pay the highest wages have traditionally demanded. The Maids’ Company also insists on a compulsory one weekend day a week off, another traditional sore point. But Singh argues that this is the core of her value proposition – service, not servants.

Singh has had occasion to constantly reaffirm that in the past three years. Like the time when her office got a call from a client, a well-to-do apparently suave businessman who told her that he would take the maid to the roof, throw her down, pick up her body, and throw her down again – because she had been rude to him. Terrified, the customer service representative called Singh. “Here’s the thing – and this is one of my biggest insights – the moment I got onto the call, the client’s tone changed. I have seen this again and again and again,” Singh told me, sitting at her office beside a desk that had a sheet of paper attached to it. It was like an office homily. It said, “We must not hate people who have done wrong to us. For as soon as we begin to hate them, we become just like them, pathetic, bitter and untrue.”

“As soon as I started speaking in English – the tone, nuance, verve, everything of the conversation changed. Suddenly the client was polite.” But the company still decided to terminate services immediately even though the client offered a written assurance of the safety of the maid and an apology.

Another time a client who worked at the United Nations threatened to have the client-servicing executive of The Maids’ Company beaten up and thrown out of the complex for a minor incident.

Yet another time, when a maid forgot to put cling film on some food, a client raised her hand and threatened to beat her. In every case, especially if violence has been threatened, The Maids’ Company immediately terminates service. Says Singh, “But the clients don’t want that. They are accustomed to talking in a certain way to domestic help, and it is a mindset change, a jump in behaviour for them to fi x that. In their gated communities, getting reliable service is very diffi cult. When they recruit an agency, they do police checks but there is no guarantee that the agency would be available if something goes wrong, no guarantee that they won’t disappear after taking the advance. We are available all the time.” Most urban police in India advise the people to get a police registration of all their domestic help, like drivers, cooks and maids.

But sometimes things still go wrong. Like the time when a client accused the maid for stealing a chocolate worth Rs 2. This was in response to the client’s first reprimanding the maid for being ten minutes late. The maid rightly informed the client that she would try to make it on time, but due to traffi c, a delay of 15 minutes was sometimes out of her control. The client was upset that the maid answered back and took the issue to the company. The company repeated the maid’s answer. This made the client angry, and to put the company on the back foot, she accused the maid of stealing a Rs 2 piece of chocolate.

“We, as per our process, immediately replaced the maid. Then the client came back to us saying they didn’t care about the theft and wanted to continue with this maid,” Singh says. There is, as she often thinks, never a dull day in this job.

Excerpted with permission from Recasting India: How Entrepreneurship is Revolutionizing the World’s Largest Democracy, Hindol Sengupta, Palgrave Macmillan.