Sunday, March 07, 2010

Be Modern, Be 'Civil' to domestic servants

Be Modern, Be 'Civil' to domestic servants
By M J Akbar

A hundred years ago, according to a recent book, domestic servants constituted Britain’s largest source of employment. That simple statistic reveals, better than anything else, the inequality of a class-driven society, and the partnership between wealth and power in Victorian and post-Victorian Britain. The Industrial Age was well under way, but had not achieved the critical mass that would broaden the working class and spawn the Labour Party. The British upper classes were not cruel to servants, although there were strict distinctions: in a grand house, servants were permitted to eat and drink as much as they wished, but could only live downstairs.

The meltdown of the ancient regime was evolutionary in Britain, rather than revolutionary, as in Russia, even though British democracy was a stained and evolving process, full of rotten boroughs and inbuilt inequity. Democracy needed a lot of latitude if as famous a prime minister as William Pitt – the Elder could be considered elected, when the total electorate in his constituency consisted of five voters. Women got the vote even later than the “lower classes”. It took two world wars, and the death of millions of poor in the service of an empire designed to fatten the rich, before the privileged system withered.

Nineteenth century America did not have servants, it had slaves; and slavery reinvented itself in many forms after its official abolition before it withered. The British attitude towards colour was far more sophisticated, and many nuances of racism could survive under a veneer of wit. Samuel Johnson, famously, had a devoted Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, as well as a pet cat. Barber was not allowed to carry the cat as it would be demeaning to both.

More to the point, today the word “servant” has disappeared from the popular lexicon of both America and Europe. If it survives it is only within the construct of a “civil servant” — who is definitely not a servant, and very often not particularly civil either. Of course, there is still a population that earns from service at homes in the West: the huge demand for “illegal” immigrants confirms this. But the terms of reference have changed in favour of the servants. Only a thin elite can afford full-time house servants, since their cost is high, and beyond the reach of the professional middle class.

There are, at least to my knowledge, no statistics available, but it would be a safe bet to claim that the largest source of employment in contemporary India is domestic servants. In that sense, we are where Britain was a century ago. There is a world of difference between the service economy and a servants’ economy; India claims the first and lives in the second. The domestic servant is the first rung of aspiration for more than half of India.

The tensions are palpable, particularly in urban India, which has neither the sense of neighbourhood nor a culture of sympathy. The servant is both the provider as well as the potential assailant, particularly if male, for he belongs to a world that is distant both geographically and psychologically. The young man cleans utensils only because he is a prisoner of necessity. The rewards are pitiful; the treatment pitiable. The threat of servant violence is the regular diet of the media; but cruelty towards servants is largely ignored, perhaps because journalists are part of the middle class and complicit.

Developed societies in the West created robotic machines, like the dishwasher, to fill the gap, even as they lifted the poor into an expanding middle class, loosely defined as a group with enough for food, clothing, shelter and basic education. The Indian attitude to washing machines is unique: we hire servants to use them. Those who cannot afford washing machines can still afford servants to wash clothes the older way. Some overlap is understandable in the transition phase, but the incremental rise in upward mobility is a flickering fact, not a sustained reality.

The tension of denial is evident on the visage of those servants who haven’t reconciled to their dull fate. It’s true that the majority of servants have no dispute with their economic destiny, since this maximum-effort, minimal-reward employment prevents starvation. But that, surely, is not a pleasant reality.

The good news about India is that plumbers and electricians are becoming more expensive. The rising cost of skills is proof of some transfer of wealth. A tongue-in-cheek view suggests that India will not become a modern economy as long as there are civil servants. Let me assert, tongue firmly in right place, that India will become a modern economy only when domestic service is treated as civil, and a service that deserves the salary available to the starting circle of government jobs.

Appeared in Times of India - March 07, 2010


Anoop Verma said...

“Let me assert, tongue firmly in right place, that India will become a modern economy only when domestic service is treated as civil, and a service that deserves the salary available to the starting circle of government jobs.”


I agree completely with every thing that has been said in this article, and especially with the conclusion. There is no way India can succeed till we can rid our society of this obnoxious form of discrimination that happens on basis of a person’s social status

Look at the way we treat the maids who work in our homes. The average pay of a maid in a middle class home in Delhi is just 500 Rupees. How can these people live with such flimsy salary? They can’t educate their children, they can’t buy proper food and they can’t afford to have adequate medication. They are doomed to a hand to mouth existence forever.

We spend more on a day’s outing to the restaurant, compared to what we pay to our maids. The maids have to remove their slippers before they are allowed to enter the house, and they are hounded for the smallest mistake that they might make.

There is so much blather in the media about how Indians are being treated in places like Australia. Frankly speaking I am sick and tired of hearing about this ridiculous bunch of “whining NRIs” in Australia. I don’t think any NRI in Australia is being treated as badly and as unfairly as the maids working in Delhi’s elite homes are.

Indians are most racist people in the world. We discriminate on basis of religion, on basis of caste. But the most virulent form of racism that we practise is in the name of social status.

We try to take advantage of every poor and weak person, by heaping indignities on him, treating him disrespectfully and by denying him the right amount of salary. If anyone in Australia were to treat their employees in the way we treat our maids, then that family would surely be arrested.

But in India, the oppressors are considered to be the respectful citizens of society. We are a nation of hypocrites, we like to point fingers at other nations for flimsiest reasons, but we lack the courage and the integrity to bring about a change in ourselves.

I feel very strongly about the treatment of poor workers in Delhi, but there is hardly anything I can do about it…

Balaji said...

come on, unless there is a very special medical necessity, old people for instance, employing domestic servants is immoral to the core. why shud someone else do your domestic work? isn't that ridiculous? your article is like saying customers should be gentle with the prostitutes.

Anoop Verma said...

“employing domestic servants is immoral to the core.”

Immorality or morality are a matter of personal opinion and choice. Morality has nothing to do with law. No one has the right to impose his or her version of morality on the entire society.

In a free society people have a right to enter the profession of their choice. If someone’s mental attributes and ambitions limit him or her to the job of a domestic servant, then they have the right to serve in that position.

There is nothing wrong in being a domestic servant. As MJ Akbar has said in article, it is only necessary that the rights of the domestic servants are safeguarded.

There is nothing wrong in the profession of a prostitute as well. It is a matter is of personal choice. An adult should be legally allowed to trade sex for money or any kind of favours.

As long as someone is not being forced to be a domestic servant, a prostitute, or a doctor or engineer or journalist, there is nothing wrong with anyone working in any capacity.