Adjusting to Service-Oriented Environments and Domestic Workers

At Orientation, we met with a former AIF Clinton Fellow who offered us advice on living on a stipend in India. Among other suggestions, she mentioned that to cut costs, it would be helpful to do our own cleaning instead of hiring a maid. I was shocked— why would we even think of having domestic help? I figured it was likely that most of the other American Fellows, like myself, had grown up without anyone in their home to assist with cooking, cleaning, or childcare. It seemed like having a maid or other domestic help would be a luxury, and I couldn’t imagine using any portion of our modest stipend to hire someone else to conduct household chores that I was used to doing myself at home.

I spent a few months in India in 2016 and from that experience was somewhat aware that it’s common for middle or upper-middle class individuals and families in India to hire domestic help, but I hadn’t experienced it directly on that trip. My initial reaction to the idea of hiring help myself was one of aversion. I didn’t want to be directly or indirectly contributing to a system that limits mobility for people of certain social classes, nor did I feel it was necessary to turn over responsibility for household tasks to someone else. I voiced these feelings to my co-fellows, and left for Bangalore feeling that having domestic help was something I wanted to avoid, despite how common it is here.

My first reality-check came on my initial house-hunt in Bangalore: At almost every apartment I saw, with the exception of some (but not all) places where expats were living, the current tenants had hired a cook, maid, and sometimes additional help. If I agreed to move in, both using and paying for these services were nonnegotiable. My feelings added an extra layer of complication to the house-hunt. At most places I visited or when I contacted potential roommates, I was met with confusion and sometimes outright refusal to further explore the possibility of living together when I explained that I would not be willing to pay for a maid, if that was a condition for moving in, but that I would prefer to do my own cleaning, cooking, and laundry if the facilities were set up in the house. I realized that if I were to live with local roommates, having domestic help was a required part of the package.

I’ve now lived at three apartments in Bangalore, each with a different setup for domestic help but with none lacking it completely, and have seen three iterations of how these relationships work. I initially felt (and still sometimes feel) incredibly awkward even in the presence of the women hired to work in these apartments. For the most part, the women (and it is always just women according to my experience) working at my previous and current apartments have not spoken English, so in addition to generally feeling uncomfortable handing them dishes to wash or vacating my room so they can clean it, I have been limited in the extent to which I can communicate with them, both on a polite small-talk level and to learn more about them.

When I realized that accepting the presence of some level of domestic help would be necessary to live here, I tried to seek out background information on this system and learn about the motives behind hiring individuals to work in one’s home. I’ve heard some interesting and helpful takes—a few people have pointed out that India’s massive population offers a huge workforce, and domestic work is one way to employ a large number of people. It certainly can be more challenging to have free time at home here—for example, commutes in Bangalore can be upwards of two hours—so I can understand that especially for individuals with families, they may just not have the time to both work and finish domestic tasks. Most people mention that domestic help is cheap here, so there’s not much incentive to go without this household support when it exists so inexpensively. I also hear often that certain things we wouldn’t need to think about in the U.S.—like a house getting so dusty that it needs daily cleaning—meaning that cleaning may just need to happen more frequently, and differently, than I have ever been used to.

Another fellow sent me this interesting article, albeit representing one individual experience and perspective, written by a woman who’d moved from India to the U.S. in her 20s. I found this particularly interesting to read as I adjusted to the experience of living in apartments where having domestic help is seen as absolutely necessary and normal. The author explains the challenges she had in moving somewhere where she was living without in-home help for the first time, and the perspective that offered her on the pervasiveness of domestic labor in India. I thought reading about her experience, exactly opposite from what I have experienced this year, offered excellent insight into what it was like for one person to know only a system where having domestic help is ubiquitous. This gave me a better sense of why roommates might be surprised when I asked if I could go without using their cook, or asked me to not to keep washing my dishes (a force of habit).

I’ve had many takeaways from my experience interacting with domestic workers and living in places where they are employed. As I expected, these individuals work very hard, yet do not make anywhere near the salary to have the same standard of living and privileges as those who employ them. Living in multiple apartments, I’ve seen different attitudes towards domestic help. When relationships are conducted in a professional manner, the work is dignified and mutual respect is evident. I’ve noticed that trying to pitch in or contribute to the work you employ someone to do, as much as it is sort of a natural impulse for someone not used to this (at least, it was for me) can undermine the position of the individual who has been employed to do this particular job. One roommate explained it simply: that individual is hired to, for example, wash your dishes; when you do this for them, what work will they do? There is strong a sense that their work and responsibilities should be respected, which offers dignity to these positions.

I am limiting this post to my personal experiences from the places where I have lived in Bangalore and insights I have gained from friends, and recognize that there are many things I don’t understand or know about this system. I’m particularly interested in understanding the gendered aspect of domestic work, and what implications that has for women of certain social classes. I realize now how shortsighted it was to initially assume I would just opt out of having domestic help, something that is incredibly common for many people here, without understanding that this may be a condition for living with local roommates. I’ve developed a better understanding of how different relationships with domestic employees look, and appreciated the respect seen in many of these situations. I hope to maintain a dialogue about these relationships as I continue to learn about this aspect of life in India.

Abby graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2016 with a double major in Biology and Gender and Women’s Studies and a Certificate in Global Health. As a student, she worked as a research assistant on projects examining gendered causes of health disparities, volunteered as a health coach at a community health center, and worked with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to develop a policy to address physician shortages in rural areas of the state. She has spent the last year as a Maternal Child Health Coordinator with the National Health Corps Pittsburgh, an AmeriCorps program, working with high-risk women and families to provide health education and case management services. In summer 2016, she completed a research internship with the Public Health Foundation of India in Gurgaon, where she worked on a project studying treatment for anemia in pregnancy. She is excited to be returning to India to work on a public health project with Bempu!

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One thought on “Adjusting to Service-Oriented Environments and Domestic Workers

  1. Thank you, Abby, for sharing this precarious aspect about living in India and Bangalore! I can relate to many things that you’re describing. I appreciate that you’re taking the time and space to reflect deeper based on your experience these past ten months, rather than jumping to easy conclusions. Thanks for sharing this here!

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