A slew of online job portals like Babajobs and Nanojobs, which once focused mainly on white-collar job seekers, are now helping place domestic workers without the intervention of a broker. The sites offer clues to the wide range of salaries prevailing across different areas of the city, and what employers are looking for.
On Babajobs, people in Delhi seeking domestic cooks are generally willing to offer Rs 10,000 a month. Many, strangely, offer far less for childcare than for cooking, generally around Rs 8,000 a month, but sometimes just half of that. A professor at a local business college, for example, is seeking a maid for six hours a day for Rs 3,500 a month, while a single mother in Uttam Nagar asks for a full-time live-in maid who will clean and do childcare for the same salary, a job that twenty-two people have applied for despite its low wages. The ads seeking childcare are often devoid of much detail apart from the child’s age, and can almost uniformly be summed up as “Woman wanted very badly!”
Cities deemed more “corporate”, like Mumbai and Bengaluru, offer higher salaries. On Nanojobs, maids in Mumbai who are seeking live-in jobs online rarely ask for less than Rs 10,000, and many ask between Rs 12,000 and 14,000. On Babajobs, a “travelling senior executive” in Bengaluru offers a salary of Rs 15,000 a month along with health and life insurance and twenty-five days off a year, asking for someone with a “pleasing personality” capable of supervising the cook and the part-time cleaner, and “smooth execution” of dinner parties.
But rather than connecting directly with workers online – a fair number of prospective employers seem to be suspicious of servants clever enough to operate a computer and surf the web – many employers are trying to recreate the old “word-of-mouth” system on social networking sites like Facebook. On such sites, members post photographs of women who have worked for them, and ask whether other members know anything about these maids.
I would be horrified if this was how a potential employer planned to check my past – and certainly, many of the maids look rather sullen in the photographs – but on sites closed to the public until a moderator approves a request to join, such requests elicit candid if hard-hearted responses.
When one woman seeks information on a Gurgaon-focused Facebook maid-referral site about a worker she recently let go, another woman posts a comment telling her that the lady resembles her previous maid, who had tuberculosis. The first woman writes back, “No wonder she was so weak. Had less appetite. Always stole n drank milk.”
Another woman blacklists a maid because when the woman quit, she searched the woman’s bag and found it full of her lipsticks and nail polish, which she confiscated although, tainted as they were by her servant’s touch, she had no intention of using them. “Though I took it back from her I was left with no choice but to put in bin.”
Despite the moderator’s attempts to deter people from commenting on looks, they do, which is where things get really strange.
On various occasions, women claim to recognise women as their former maids more frequently than one would expect even for people living in condo complexes near one another. Given that the maids in question are often from different states and ethnic origins than the employers, I wonder whether some of these aren’t a case of racist ignorance – as happened when an older white man famously mistook the Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling for Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai.
My suspicions deepen when, in one such exchange, an employer posts a photo for comparison. The commenters agree it is the same woman. But to my eyes, they don’t look like the same woman at all, even if they both look as if they could hail from West Bengal’s Darjeeling area, home to many ethnic Nepalis.
Another time, an employer posts a photograph of a plump young woman, who looks North Indian and is relatively light-skinned compared to some of the other photographs posted of women from eastern India. She is wearing glasses and a short kurta in muted colours rather than the kind of bright, multi-coloured nylon sari many workers wear.
Several people chime in “pretty!” or “she looks like from a good family!” and insist she’s not a maid. One offers this caution: “By body language she did not looking like a maid, you must check her ID proof.” The group moderator intervenes and asks people not to say that some women look like maids and others don’t, but most people don’t understand what she’s trying to say and defend their words as merely being complimentary.
Apart from hiring and references, these forums also offer women a chance to compare salaries and discuss the appropriate etiquette towards servants. On a group aimed at connecting moms, an acquaintance tells me, a long discussion broke out one day on whether the help should be allowed to use the house washing machine for their own clothes. Some say absolutely not. Others think a live-in maid should be allowed to use the machine – as long as she makes sure to wash her clothes separately from family laundry, a laundering practice that dates back at least to the Victorians.
But most of all, these groups end up being a place to vent about maid woes, which for many only truly seem to have begun when they embarked upon motherhood. Some women share alarming stories. One woman reports being stopped by an elderly couple in the mall who tell her they recognise her nanny, whom she has been very happy with, as the woman who locked them in a room and cleaned out their house – not with a broom, but with the help of her husband and other men. Another reports discovering the nanny she hired and tried to give a fair chance to had hit her child.
Many mothers urge the installation of CCTV cameras in homes, especially when one woman, who is clearly extremely stressed, asks whether it’s safe to leave her infant with a woman who appears to suffer from extreme PMS and mood swings, and who she has only just hired. “Your baby is at risk every time she cries or, in some way, irks the nanny,” warns one group member, while another urges the woman to consider day care.
“Tell me of one that will take a baby under the age of six months’, the original poster pleads. “I am more than ready,” she says. Motherhood, without a “mom or mom in law to stay in with you on a long term basis [is] a very scary prison to be caught in.”
It is only rarely that the class solidarity that is generally firmly in evidence online breaks down. When one woman gives a bad reference to a worker, complaining about her for flirting with guys on the phone, another member responds,
“They need their time and during that time whether they talk to one boy, 5 boy [sic] or no boy is none of my business.”
Another time, when a photograph of a maid that has been posted for vetting appears to show a girl in her mid-teens, several call the poster a lawbreaker; in response, a few members leap to her defence. “As if people have kept the birth certificates of the maids...there must be thousands of underage maids in Gurgaon and Delhi,” says one woman in a post. Another woman chastises her. “Let’s not take our civic responsibility so lightly...we want rules and laws but not when they come in the way of our convenience. Our society is becoming a dangerously selfish place.”
The law, though, doesn’t actually back civic-minded people who think that if you want to help impoverished young people, you should pay for them to attend school rather than hiring them. It sides with the people who want to hire teens to work in their homes, adopting a reasoning that many child rights activists hate to hear - that parents need the income from their teenage children.
The groups trying to reduce child labour say that by sending teens to work, parents lock themselves and their children into poverty for another generation. But the state hasn’t been convinced. The law only bars hiring a maid under the age of fourteen, a change first brought about in 2006. In 2016, that ban was watered down when a loophole was inserted into the main child labour prohibition law allowing children under fourteen to work for family members, which is in any case how many children first become servants in their teens, by working for distant relatives in the city. And despite efforts by rights groups to urge people to hire women eighteen and older, many employers actively seek out teens.
At one point I come across a portal that offers a fairly lengthy list of agencies that supply maids. This list spurred more than 300 comments posted from 2010 to 2013 from people “urgently” seeking maids to take care of children or elderly parents, or do general housework, or do all three at once. A post by a man from Haryana looking for a “full time semi-trained girl” of “age around 14/15 years” to take care of his toddler while at the same time doing other household work is pretty typical of the requests. No one seems to think it odd that this internet discussion is taking place on a website run by nursery school chain Shemrock, which advertises its devotion to “the social, emotional, spiritual, physical, motor and cognitive development” of children.
Excerpted with permission from Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside Our Homes, Tripti Lahiri, Aleph Book Company.