There was a short story, read long ago, in which a woman wants to take up a job. She gets one to run a crèche, so she has to hire a domestic helper to look after her home and kids. The woman she hires, then has to leave her kids at the day care centre her employer runs.
There must have been a point in there about the price women pay for having careers, but the fact is that a lot of women are able to pursue higher education and work outside the home, because another woman—it is usually a woman, but there are men too—are holding fort at home.
The indispensable domestic worker came into focus through Alfonso Cuaron’s film Roma, that has been a raved about by critics and audiences, and has just won three Academy Awards—narrowly missing the Best Film Prize which went to Green Book, also about an employer-employee relationship, but in a different context.
In Roma, Cuaron revisits his childhood in Mexico City and plays tribute to the family’s maid Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, named Cleo in the film (played Yalitza Aparicio) , who earned herself an Oscar nomination). Cleo and another young girl are seen at work from morning to night—waking up before the family does, preparing breakfast, cleaning the large house, doing the laundry, getting the kids ready for school, and going to bed only after the last member of the family has eaten, had a nightcap and gone to bed.
Still, Cleo is cheerful and loved by the three children she cares for with genuine warmth. The kids occasionally pay attention to her, but she is generally taken for granted, with no thought given to her needs and wants. The kids’ mother (Marina de Tavira, also Oscar nominee), and grandmother, do, however, rally around Cleo when she has a personal crisis; the man of the house, it too caught up in his life outside– work and affair with another woman– to bother about how the household is run, except to complain that the dog’s poo is not cleaned properly from the driveway.
In the West, the domestic worker is out of reach except for the very rich, but in India, so far, domestic workers are available and relatively affordable even for middle-class families. In the old feudal homes, armies of servants were always in the background silently carrying out orders, but the actual worth of a good helper is seen in urban nuclear homes, where a trustworthy domestic helper makes all the difference to the household. Women who go out to work, leave keys with the bais who come by in their absence to cook and clean. Of course, there are cases of the help stealing, but by and large they are honest and hardworking.
How many people in Mumbai, whose lives are made immeasurably easier by their maids, even bother to find out their full names, ask after their families, or help when they are sick? Very few. But the ‘memsaabs’ grumble rather volubly when the maid takes a day or two off, because they have to wash their own dishes or dust their home. There are even those, who won’t buy washing machines, because there is a human being to handwash their clothes.
According to the International Labour Organisation, “Domestic workers comprise a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers. They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the scope of labour legislation. Currently there are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide, not including child domestic workers and this number is increasing steadily in developed and developing countries. Even though a substantial number of men work in the sector – often as gardeners, drivers or butlers – it remains a highly feminized sector: 80 per cent of all domestic workers are women.”
These women are just not appreciated enough for managing their own difficult lives as well as doing their employers’ menial jobs. Those who don’t live in the homes where they work, often get up at the crack of dawn, fill water for the house from the municipal taps, bathe, cook, get tiffins ready for the men and kids, and then walk to work, or take crowded public transport. They work at one or multiple homes, then go back and do their own housework, cooking, cleaning caring for the elderly and the kids. So many of them have idle brothers and husbands, who beat then, snatch their money and drink it off, that it is almost a working class stereotype. But these women slog to send their kids to school and make it their life’s work to see to it that their children get proper jobs and escape the drudgery of domestic work, but many of the young girls are forced to follow their mothers, for lack of education and employment opportunities.
Things are slowly changing for them—wages are getting higher, they get paid leave, festival bonuses and far better treatment then they did till a few years ago, because good help is so tough to find that they soon become vital in the lives of the families they work with—especially the women. Still, there are no health benefits, unless the employer is generous, and no retirement benefits.Occasionally there are reports about maids being beaten and tortured, but mercifully those are few and fare between.
Roma serves as a reminder to us all about the importance of domestic help. To celebrate the social impact of the film, the National Domestic Workers Alliance held a red carpet event in Los Angeles to honour “heroes of our homes.” The event also had the support Alfonso Cuarón, activist Tarana Burke and actresses Diane Guerrero, Eva Longoria and Olga Segura.
According to reports, Cuarón recently made a public service announcement calling on employers of domestic workers to “pay fairly, set clear expectations, and provide paid time off.” He also invited support of Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, a legislative effort to provide rights and protection denied for decades.
It is not very often that a film makes such an impact –maybe everyone should say thank you to their bais, and once in a while give them a treat, a gift or an extra day off.