By Ruth Vanita
In the U.S. and in Europe, many people assume in an unexamined way that employing people to do one’s domestic chores is inherently exploitative. Many liberal Indians living in the West, embarrassed by the ubiquitous presence of domestic workers in India, shamefacedly agree. The Devyani Khobragade case led to a chorus of middle-class Indians, most of them living in the West, denouncing ourselves on social media for employing servants in India and for using the term “servants”.
These sweeping denunciations are rather illogical. Do Westerners do all of their own domestic work and childcare? On the surface, it may appear as if they do, but in fact they do not. First, many of them, including many liberal university professors, employ cleaning ladies, baby-sitters, part-time or full-time nannies and workers to do chores like gardening and shovelling snow, and attendants to help with elderly parents. Second, the majority of people in the West who do not have paid help in their homes nevertheless make use of the services of numerous poor people to aid in their domestic work.
Who processes food bought in supermarkets (such as pre-washed salads, grated and chopped vegetables and fruit, pre-made mixes and ready-made deli items) so that the buyer does not have to do anywhere near as much preparation as Indian cooks have to? Who prepares the take-out food that most Americans rely on for several meals a week? Who does the dry cleaning, washing and ironing at Laundromats? Machines do some of this work but most of it is done by faceless, anonymous, poorly paid, overworked people whom the consumer conveniently does not have to see or know.
Denunciations of domestic service operate on the unspoken assumption that this kind of work is somehow more degrading than factory work, construction work or agricultural work. That assumption derives partly from the history of domestic labour as women’s work, which is viewed as low-status, reinforced by the fact that most domestic workers are women.
It also derives from an inaccurate idea that domestic workers are somehow enslaved in a way that other manual workers are not. Otherwise, why would we be less condemnatory of someone living in a house that non-unionized workers have built, or eating food farmed by non-unionized agricultural labourers than of someone who eats food cooked by a domestic worker in their kitchen?
The assumption that domestic workers are necessarily more oppressed than other workers also ignores the agency of workers. If workers have better options than domestic work, why would they choose to do it? The reason that fewer people employ domestic workers in the West than in India is not that Westerners are more liberal or enlightened, but that the economy of scale has made it cheaper to use the services of anonymous workers in large establishments than to employ domestic workers. Thus, pre-cooked food available at diners, and fast food take-outs are cheap because the cooks and servers in these establishments work more cheaply than domestic workers do.
In India, and for some workers in the West too, domestic work has certain advantages – for example, part-time cooking and cleaning allows workers a more flexible schedule with time to go home in the afternoon, and it is somewhat less physically taxing than construction work or agricultural labour. Domestic workers also can and often do choose employers, leaving an exploitative one for a fairer, or a higher-paying one. If middle-class people chose to do all of their own domestic work, how exactly would this benefit the millions of workers who would be rendered unemployed? Would they obtain higher-status, better paid jobs as a result?
There is no doubt that many Indian employers mistreat, abuse and exploit domestic workers, and they should certainly be penalized for doing so. This is not, however, a logical reason to abolish domestic service. That would be like abolishing universities because some professors abuse their students. It also overlooks the fact that there are millions of good personal relationships between domestic workers and their employers. I know a lawyer who bought apartments for his two drivers, and when the child of one was injured in an accident, spent thousands paying for his treatment at a private hospital; a university professor who drove across Delhi every weekend to tutor her uncle’s driver’s son in science; and many employers who pay for their workers’ children’s education, and also give their workers interest-free loans. Several use their contacts to find office jobs for their workers or their workers’ children. Most readers would know of such instances.
In domestic service there is a face-to-face relationship between employer and worker, where each views the other as a human being, rather than a pair of hands. Yes, the relationship is hierarchical; as are most relationships, but it is nevertheless a human relationship wherein people (most often women) converse about their pleasures and problems, discuss the news, and know the names of each other’s’ children.
The Indian economy may be moving towards a set-up where domestic service is disguised and hidden in restaurants, supermarkets, laundries and factories, so that we do not have to know the person doing our work or care about her problems. We can then call her a “server” (as Americans call waiters in restaurants), instead of a servant. This may make us feel more comfortable, but it will not necessarily improve the worker’s life.
Ruth Vanita taught English at Delhi University for 20 years and now teaches world humanities at the University of Montana. The author of several books, most recently Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870, she also edited the pioneering Same-Sex Love in India with Saleem Kidwai. She has also translated many works of fiction and poetry from Hindi to English. She divides her time between Missoula and Gurgaon; this year, she will also spend some months at Cambridge, England.