Published in: 
Saturday, February 23, 2002

The chief concern of an average urban middle-class housewife is her child’s admission to a prestigious private English medium school, or her inability to get cheap hired domestic help, preferably a child worker. Six years ago RK Laxman drew an insightful cartoon that depicts our society. Two boys – one healthy, standing erect in school uniform; the other weak, ill-clad and groaning under the weight of a load of books and lunch box with two ladies looking on. The mother of the uniformed child tells her companion, “It’s really cruel burdening the kids like this! I had to hire that boy to help my son!”

One of the inevitable conversation pieces in today’s family and social gatherings is domestic help.  It is actually amusing to hear people complain at length about the servant problem, criticize the quality of workers available, comment on the difficulty in finding reliable assistance and bemoan the chaos reigning at home because of the departure of a long standing reliable helper.

As a service sector having immense potential to enhance the quality of our life, domestic help surely deserves more serious attention.  Over the years, generations of workers have been doing the same menial jobs working under oppressive conditions, with little attempt being made to improve their quality of life and competence to match the growing needs of modern society in a global economy. Actually our Indian democracy perpetuated the social hierarchies instead of improving the lot of this segment.

Medieval social attitude and modern economy cannot go together. Wealth creation is the basis of modern prosperity. Rupees and dollars themselves do not constitute wealth. True wealth lies in creation of goods and services that fulfill the needs of society.. In the olden days when subsistence economy was the norm, all that mattered was to eke out a livelihood and maintain status quo. Generation after generation merely held on to what it had, and people lived and died without real wealth creation. Relative status of people remained unchanged throughout life and for generations. In its own warped way feudal life gave security and protection.

But we cannot accept such a price in modern society. If our servant is in abject poverty the whole household suffers in terms of health, hygiene, elegance and happiness in general. If our worker is illiterate and unskilled we again suffer in terms of inefficiency and low productivity. Poverty of the many workers, cannot ensure prosperity of the few rich. Ugly class divisions can only eventually lead to violence. It is no longer merely a moral imperative, but an economic necessity and a necessary prerequisite for social harmony.

Because of a felt need some agencies in Kerala have started training domestic helpers in giving basic nursing care to the old people living alone at homes. They are paid a relatively decent wage of about Rs.3000/- per month in addition to lodge and board. And the employer gets good quality service and is free from fear and bother. It’s a win-win situation. This can be easily practised in all other sectors now employing unorganized labour. Education, health-care, fair wage, reasonable living conditions, and hope for a different and better tomorrow are the key to workers’ productivity and employers’ satisfaction. The sooner the middle and upper classes realise this the better it is for all of us.

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