Friday, 9 December 2011

Maids and their tantrums...

Every day, I see ads in newspapers where employers search for not just maids who can look after the house, but also who can be good nannies, who can groom the kids in social graces, besides polishing their alphabet and numbers. They look for women who are fluent in English and efficient in managing the house as well.

Most often, I come across the tantrums thrown by my neighbours’ maids. Both my neighbours have Sri Lankan maids to look after the house and small kids. One among them is ever complaining about her employers and sometimes, I wonder why they have her as their maid. Maybe she’s indispensable to her employers, given the fact that both her employers – husband and wife – are working and they have no other go but to rely on her to look after the child who completed one year, just last month.

I don’t know how much to trust her, but have no other go but to listen her stories. She’s working as a full-time maid with my neighbours who are from south India. I love growing some vegetables in my backyard and she asks me, “Don’t your husband buy you vegetables? Why do you want to grow vegetables?” Let me tell you, she also grows her vegetables and before I could throw her back the same question, she continues, “Had my employers got enough vegetables, I would have not taken the trouble to grow them.” Then, sometimes she complains that her employers don’t allow her to cook rice all the time and they want roti every day. She being a Sri Lankan finds it hard to eat roti and chapati every day!

Sometimes she quips that her employers are not buying her clothes and sometimes she complains how they don’t buy milk and later shout at her for not preparing coffee or tea, they buy only half a kg of chicken and invite four guests! When I gave a handful of string beans I had grown, instead of thanking me, she asked, “only this much?”

But seriously what makes me wonder about her employers is why did they want to have a baby when they couldn’t take of that kid? The child spends all the day with the maid. The kid has picked a few words in Tamil and not its mothertongue! The kid even sleeps with the maid. And sometimes, I hear the maid beating the child and the child screaming and crying. All this makes me feel sad not only for the kid, but also for the parents.

But whatever be it, I felt really hurt, when her employers refused to send her home when her brother passed away due to cardiac arrest. One evening last month, I went to water my plants and she too came outside. Her eyes were red and swollen. I could make out something was wrong and she had been crying. When asked, she started crying, telling me that her brother had passed away and her employers didn’t agree to send her for the funeral. All I could do was pity at her plight and console her with few broken Tamil words. I felt miserable on how she was stuck here and was unable to go home even when her brother had died. Maybe the Kefala system adopted by some of the largest receivers of migrant workers in the Gulf states has to be blamed for this. Most immigrations schemes around the world are based on the sponsor, who is usually the citizen, in need of services from a foreign worker.

Let me tell you what is the Kefala system. It is an official term used in the Middle Eastern countries and is a visa scheme similar to that of temporary workers in most countries across the world. Under this system, the work permit of the migrant employees is fully reliant on the sponsor/employer (kafeel) with extremely limited to no options for the migrant worker to change jobs whilst being inside the country. Those who leave their sponsor/employer without permission from both the sponsor and the government (and for whatever reason) are immediately classified as illegal aliens and are thus subject to arrest, detention (imprisonment) and deportation.

Ok, I’ll come back to the point. The underpaid, overworked, subservient maids of my childhood, who did their work quietly and accepted old sarees from the employers with gratitude are no more to be seen. They all have transformed into empowered, often educated and confident workers who do not bat an eyelid before demanding respectable wages, perks, expensive gifts on festivals, weekly offs and flexi-hours. But it is not that easy to find such maids these days. Maybe we can find parking space in a crowded market and affordable housing in the heart of the city, but finding a good maid who is good, reliable, accepts low wages and does not throw tantrums, is highly difficult.

Most of my colleagues, friends and neighbours have had bad experiences with maids and I sometimes wonder how I never felt the need for one. Maybe because we both do our works by ourselves, from washing clothes and dishes to cleaning the house, sometimes, we both cook together. My colleagues in the college had maids to help them. I used to feel amused how they made the oddest of demands. One wanted to begin and end her day at work watching Kannada movies on television and used to get upset if the employers switched channel to see some news. “One even wanted to go out to meet her boyfriend for a couple of hours every evening. But now, I have a part-time maid who comes in the morning,” my colleague used to say.

If getting a good maid is struggle, retaining her for a longer time is another battle. As more and more women are taking up jobs, working in shifts, they have no other go but to depend on maids, nannies, cooks and even drivers. Unlike earlier times, now disposable income has increased and women prefer hiring a domestic help, while they earn outside. Like my neighbour, who is a nurse, given QR750 a month for her maid to look after her child. The maid lives with them and does all the household chores, from looking after the kid, to washing clothes, cooking, everything. Her lucrative job stopped her from staying at home and appoint a full-time maid when her baby was 3-month-old.

My colleagues and friends wondered how we manage without having a maid at home. Our parents led a simple life and taught us to be simple. They never had maids and we also don't have any, as simple as that. I was surprised to hear when one of my colleagues had told me that she pays Rs 2,500 for her maid a month for cooking alone, and that too six years ago. She had one maid to cook, one maid to clean the house and wash the clothes and a driver to drop and pick her from the college. Being freshly out of the college I was amused by seeing it. I thought, having so maids and driver was a luxury.

Little did I understand that they are so busy or keeping themselves so busy that they don't cook their food and wash their clothes. And I used to laugh with my other colleagues when she used to tell me how her cook made my colleague to knead the chapati dough telling her that she kneads it so well that chapatis will be soft and fluffy; and she used to make my colleague to even cut vegetables telling she cut them in a good shape! Whenever her driver took leave, she found it difficult to come for work. Had her hubby helped her to cut the vegetables, she herself could have managed to cook food. Had they washed their clothes, they would have not required a maid. Had she learnt to drive her car, she would have not required the driver. Had she done her works at home, there was no need to go to the gym... Oops, I'm demanding too much from her ;)

More and more people from villages are moving to metros in search of job and they find maids’ jobs lucrative. Due to rising cost of living, they demand a whopping sum as wages. If they are part-time maids, they work in 4-5 houses and make a good earning. And even when they demand higher wages, employers budge as they have to keep them in good humour. I had this journalist friend who used to take her maid out, to the movies and malls once in a while. She had found her maid to be quite good and couldn’t risk losing her. Even if she’s ready to pay more, she may not get a good maid!

And there are maid agencies in the cities and many are unmonitored. Interestingly, they charge six months’ salary of the maid as their commission. And I often wonder what will they do if the maid the employers hired through the agency, by paying so much of money as commission, is not trustworthy and throws tantrums? One of my friends had such a problem. Last year, she had paid Rs 20,000 as commission and within two months, the maid started showing her true colours. She spent most of her time watching TV and somehow ration supposed to last long for a month used to disappear within 15 days. The maid often either undercooked or overcooked the rice, as if she’s taking revenge against her employers. Sometimes, she added more salt for the curries making it impossible to consume. Even sweetly explaining to her on what’s missing in the food made her to lose her temper. The maid refused to use washing soap for the clothes and insisted on using only washing powder. The washed clothes still looked unwashed and it became really tough to get along with her that she didn’t mind losing her commission money. So she had to send the maid back and search for another one. The agency didn’t come for her help, as the commission amount was non-refundable! She not only lost her money, but also her peace of mind for two months.

When I was staying in the PG in 2003, the landlord of our building had hired a maid. The maid used to charge Rs 50 per head to clean our room. So from our room, she used to get Rs 100 as I had shared the room with a techie from Hyderabad in the beginning and later a journo from Calicut. The landlord had told us that the maid mops and sweeps the room and cleans the bathroom every day. But we hardly see her coming and cleaning the bathroom every day, even though she used to sweep our rooms regularly and mopped once in a week.

We dare not check with her, as she was very loudmouthed and once even had a quarrel with my roommate. My first roommate, who was a techie, asked the maid once why she was not mopping every day and cleaning the bathroom regularly, as was promised to us. The maid picked up a quarrel and started abusing my roommate in Tamil. Complaining about the incident to the landlord was vain. Plus, other PG inmates in the next room had no problem with the maid. Obviously, the room had four beds and there was hardly any space for the maid to clean anything. All she did was clean their bathroom regularly. The maid had an added advantage there, as she used to get Rs 200 -- as there were four people -- from that room, whereas from our room she got only Rs 100.

Before leaving the PG my roommate made it sure to tell about the maid to the landlord. And all she told her was if she wanted the maid to clean the room and bathroom regularly she should have paid money to her! And surprisingly, the landlord kept the maid in good humour. Even though we had seen her indulging in petty quarrels with the maid, somehow she knew how to amuse the maid and keep her in good terms, to the extent that the maid used to send her daughter to help her employer in cooking for weekends. Every Sunday, landlord’s children and grandchildren came for dinner and the girl helped the lady to cook for 10 people!

Our landlord used to give all her old newspapers to the maid, besides buying her some toiletries from the defence canteen. We were amused to see how the maid gave hints about the specific brands. After her work, we used to see her watching Tamil songs on the TV, enjoying tea, coffee and relaxing on the sofa, in the absence of our landlord!

But maybe even then, working women will not risk losing their maids even if they know that the maids love to watch all serials and movies on television, use anti-ageing creams, powders, perfumes in their absence, consume too much of tea or coffee, if at the end of their workday she welcomes them to a tidy house, a well-kept kid and a warm dinner, then she's worth all her tantrums and price tag! 

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