Saturday, May 01, 2010

Two Minutes Older: 01 May

Help me with a title here!

Back in the early 90s our college union was a bit of a joke. Many of my friends were a part of it so I didn’t laugh but the fact was our college union wasn’t really a union; they didn’t organise strikes or make strong demands. They didn’t set themselves up against any establishment. Half the students didn’t even know there was a union. Those that did didn’t really know what it was there for.

My college’s union was apolitical and took great pride in it – indeed, owed its existence to this fact. It existed in a cosy relationship with a nearly-maternal establishment and concerned itself with things like better food in the canteen and more parking space for students’ cars.

I was reminded of this when a friend recently said on Facebook that there ought to be a union for book reviewers. (I’m still not sure how serious she was.) Do I agree? You bet I do! Just as film technicians have associations that negotiate with producers on their behalf, I’m in favour of freelance writers organising themselves to ensure there’s some kind of accountability regarding payments and schedules.

As you may have guessed, I think unions are a pretty red hot idea.

Recently, though, I’ve been amused at the middle class’s enthusiastic adoption of tactics they’ve traditionally complained about. Remember the pilots’ strike last year for better wages? I wonder how many of those same airlines staff were annoyed about hartals by, say, the Narmada Bachao Andolan back in the day, and how it was creating traffic jams and making them late for work.

Or consider Resident Welfare Associations. I’m glad that they exist, and are recognised, and have the ability to negotiate with the government and the municipality about water, sewage, garbage disposal etc. But I wonder if they’d also associate themselves equally enthusiastically with the Domestic Workers’ Trade Unions in their cities.

What are the odds? They’re more likely to crib about how it’s so hard to get ‘affordable help’ and how they’re all – if they can read but even if they can’t – moving into supermarket jobs where they get paid a lot for doing very little.
And – taking a little detour here – don’t you just love the words we use to describe domestic workers? ‘Help’? A woman who gets up at some unearthly hour to cook her family’s meal and send her kids off to school so she can come in to work at 8 am, is ‘helping’ out?  That other word, ‘maid’, to describe domestic workers is surely wistful: it turns them into discreet, genteel, almost feudal creatures, instead of the harassed, often resentful and certainly more vocal women they really are. The ugliest, most blunt appellation is, needless to say, ‘servant’ – it’s both politically incorrect and unapologetic about it.

Unorganised labourers, such as domestic workers, are some of the most exploited people today. It’s a well-known litany: hard physical work, no food or stale food, cut wages for one reason or another, abrupt dismissals, and loans leading into debts. One illness could destabilise the domestic worker’s life for many years.
The minimum wages for a domestic worker in Andhra Pradesh as of December 2007 is a laughable Rs. 12.50 and hour and Rs. 2,600 per month. We’re not even talking about medical benefits or paid leave here. Under the circumstances, I’m amazed at how unblushingly we complain about our domestic troubles.

Last year, the morning after Diwali, there were several empty shells lying around, the remains of those large crackers that splash across the sky in bursts of red and gold. Curious, I picked one up to see if there was a price tag. There was: it said MRP. Rs.1,200. Two of those more or less make one domestic worker’s monthly pay. That’s irony carrying a bludgeon.

So while I’m happy that the word ‘union’ is no longer entirely a dirty word for the middle class, I wish we could find a way to be equally supportive of those who might not have even considered unionising but will benefit enormously if they do. There’s another word people used to use that we could re-learn: it’s called ‘solidarity’. 


Extra! From Infochange!

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


Ernesto said...

Real words. I've too many homes where both partners go for work and leave the kids with the servants. For the mischievous kids' faults mostly there people got fired. Employers should think about this and put a full stop to this modern feudalism! Keep your writing ma'am:)

Subbareddy Adapala said...


Last page first said...

"m'aider" (aptly pronounced 'MayDay'! French for 'Help me'). Just that, it is interesting to see who is yelling out that distress signal. Maid or the Master?

Vox populi. vox dei.

Great tribute.

SUR NOTES said...

a cup breaks: 100rs get knocked off salaries of 400rs/month
"thats how much that cup cost, its only fair that she pays for it."

ten days leave: 150rs gets knocked off monthly salary
"some father, brother, or someone died in the village. i had to hire someone else. its only fair that the one who did the work gets paid from her salary."

evenings in the park with the child are scary, depressing places. one is privy to bizarre rate cards and crazy notions of fairness.

good post spacebar!

Anonymous said...

Here through Blog Bharti.

I feel we should fix some simple, easy to follow basic rules and those should be announced in a way that the maids/domestic helper also know about them. One or two days (paid) off every week (or accumulated?). A minimum fixed amount - depending on how many family members or the size of the house to be cleaned...

Even if there are different skill levels, at least a minimum amount to be paid can be fixed.

km said...

a union for book reviewers.

Will their sit-ins be "triumphant, soaring, even majestic" and "make me laugh and cry at once"?

/alt. title: "Ain't gonna work for Maggie's farm no more".

///how about mandating every family (that employs a domestic worker) to be responsible for the education and health-care of the worker's children?

///this piece felt shorter than usual - my morning cuppa ran out before I finished reading it. So, yeah, we need 1000 words more, please.

dipali said...

Unions or no unions, surely there are aspects of common decency with regard to house help. It is strange how the well-heeled often declare themselves exploited by 'these people', whose absence paralyses the running of their households.

Hari Batti said...

yes. to respond to this properly would take more time than i have right now. but solidarity is a word we could stand to use more of, no?

Tabula Rasa said...

great post.

in hong kong and singapore, household help is formally legalized as opposed to unionized. everything works on the basis of a contract, there's a stipulated minimum wage, and mandatory annual holidays plus paid days off every week. either side can terminate the contract, based on stipulated notice periods and advance wages. i call this civilization.

Falstaff said...

I'm not sure this makes a lot of sense.

Why should the middle class support the unions of those they're exploiting? The starting point for any union is the pragmatic recognition that you 'deserve' what you can get, and the best way to get more is to use collective bargaining to strengthen your negotiating position. It's logical, therefore, that as the middle class comes to appreciate the power of unions (and the us vs. them mindset that necessarily comes with unionisation) more, they become less supportive of efforts by those they employ to organize themselves. Class consciousness is always about claiming a greater share of the pie.

I'm not saying that domestic workers in India are not being exploited, or that there isn't a case to be made for, say, minimum wage legislation (though whether that makes sense depends on the elasticity of demand). I'm just saying that it makes sense that as the middle class organizes they become less sympathetic to the claims of their employees.

km said...


IMO, SB's appeal is to the human side of the middle class and not the "employer" side. Or, as Dipali put it, "common decency".

That such a large labor market can be totally unregulated and without any checks and balances is a little scary.

Falstaff said...

km: I get that. My point is that has nothing to do with the middle class's growing enthusiasm for unions. Enthusiasm for unions is at best uncorrelated with human sympathy, at worst negatively correlated with it (thinking of others in terms of class = not thinking of them as individuals). Which is why this post makes no sense - the first part has nothing to do with the second part. And the connection to May 1st is at best tenuous. Rely on human decency to get fair treatment? The founders of the trade union movement would have laughed themselves silly at the idea.

km said...

Falstaff: Rely on human decency to get fair treatment?

Is there a better option for now? Simply legislating the heck out of everything is not a solution and certainly not in India.

Falstaff said...

km: Again, irrelevant. I'm not disagreeing with what SB is saying in the second half of her post. I'm only saying that it has no connection to the first half.

As for options - sure. Unions of domestic workers who will negotiate the crap out of the middle class. No need to rely on mythic decency.

Veena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Veena said...

Where I come from, unions haven't traditionally been a dirty word even for the middle classes (exceptions being the citu union types who ask for two grand to lift a sack of rice) and people are supportive of groups such as domestic workers forming unions. The domestic workers unions in the past decade or so have done a decent job of not just negotiating but also professionalising the trade - as a result, people such as my parents are quite happy as for instance, they know exactly which day of the week our lady won't turn up and they can plan accordingly.

The downside is that "decent" people no longer feel obligated to educate children of workers or find them a job or pay for their healthcare like they used to in the old feudal system. And I am not sure that incremental increase in wages is an effective substitute. But obviously, I prefer the unions to negotiate better to the alternative of depending on human decency factor to achieve the desired outcome.

Falstaff said...

Veena: Interesting.

I'm not so sure about the downside, though. Personally, I'm skeptical of the value of DIY do-goodness. Well-meaning does not equal effective. The old feudal ways were certainly good at salving the middle-class conscience, whether they delivered a real systematic benefit to the workers is less clear. We'd probably be better off if people chose to donate their time and money to a good non-profit rather than making their own haphazard attempts at social justice.

Veena said...

Falstaff: Agree. I don't think one can look to existing social structures to deliver effective outcomes for exploited groups.

Only point I'd make is that I am not sure this middle class do-goodness is driven by conscience attacks. I think the motivation is largely driven by self-interest combined with some common decency. My mum used to call her large-coconut-grove-owning-friends to request them to employ our maid's husband to cut their coconuts not because she could be happy that she had done her part to save the world. Her primary purpose was to ensure that our worker lady turned up everyday and was relatively happy and healthy.

dipali said...

@Veena: The relationship between employer and worker is highly symbiotic, and every benefit one 'bestows' has a vested interest attached. So I guess my talking of 'common decency' boils down to giving enough benefits for the people I employ to keep them happy while they work for me. That said, I have never had to dismiss anyone, ever, and changes have been made only because of us moving to a new city.

Anonymous said...

I'm not clear why the middle class who organize themselves should enthusiastically support Domestic Workers Unions. One -their own unionizing- is in their interest, the other - their domestic workers' union - is not. I think they are behaving perfectly rationally.

I also think I may have just echoed what Falsie said. Omigod, now I and Falsie think alike. What next, I pick the second least popular book out the Booker longlist and provide a cogent and incomprehensible 5000 word argument for why it actually should win?