Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Servant's Quarters

The room where we currently hang dry our clothes may soon be used for its intended purpose, living quarters for the help. And yes, I know "the help" sounds derogatory and demeaning, but if you can think of a more politically correct way to describe it, I'm open to suggestions.

Our cook, Yashoda, learned yesterday that one of her other part-time employers (also the one with whom she resides) was moving permanently back to Finland. Today. Mercifully, he is allowing her until the end of the month to find a new place of residence. Our servant's quarters are a potential new residence.

The quarters (as I'll refer to it going forward) for our apartment has its own separate entrance, consists of a room that is probably 8 foot by 12 foot, has a small bathroom with a primitive toilet (the same style we used while trekking in Nepal), a ceiling fan, and an entrance onto a small covered balcony. From the balcony, there is also an entrance into our kitchen. Based on this setup, we can actually lock our kitchen door such that she would only have access to her quarters, the small balcony, and the kitchen.

This entire situation opens up a number of questions into the culture and economics of domestic help, some of which have easier answers than others:
  • Do we directly charge her rent?
  • Do we reduce her salary to account for providing a living space?
  • Do we add to her tasks (i.e., all grocery shopping, ironing, etc.) to "pay" for rent?
  • Is it just assumed that it will be free?
  • If we extend the number of days or meals she cooks (currently, she cooks a double batch of three meals per week), do we adjust the relative amount paid per meal? (i.e., if she's currently paid "X" and we double the amount of time she works, does that mean she now gets paid "2X" or is there some scale we take advantage of?)
  • Where does she bathe? (Might seem odd and not really our concern, but there's no traditional washing facility in the quarters.)
  • Is she relegated to the quarters at all times when she's not working?
  • Do we lock our internal kitchen door each night?
  • Is it assumed that the guys who clean the apartment and use the quarters as the storage area for their cleaning supplies continue to do so?
  • What additional "rules" do we set around access or activities?
I'm sure no one truly cares about the trials, tribulations, and living conditions of our domestic help (maybe "domestic support" sounds less demeaning?), but other than it being somewhat strange that there's likely going to be someone that's basically a stranger living in my house (though with its own entrance), I'm fascinated to find out exactly how this whole process will work.


  1. First, a really quick survey of what others do is going to be oh so helpful to avoid pitfuls of not
    covering details one does not even think could come up, and they will, later. These options are obviously customized to suit your personal life.
    Yep, determine as much as you can otherwise, it can become confusssssing. Ask RJ about their first nanny hire..great nanny. Just not enough details discussed ahead of time. You are going to miss having a servant when you return and ain't that an awful thing to think out loud??

  2. Came across your blog while doing the usual - bloghopping, that is. Anyway, here is what I've seen my mother doing (living in your country now, so I've no clue how to deal with domestics either): unlike many people, my mother did not charge her maid rent. She considered this unethical as these people are very poor. She also paid her a moderate salary and gave her a cup of tea and breakfast. However, my mother, while fair, fully expected her maid to do work. So the maid cooked, cleaned and washed dishes and was occasionally scolded for doing something wrong. My mother also liked - and still likes - having privacy. So the maid came fairly early in the morning (in case you haven't noticed, most Indians get bustling really early in the morning so as to finish all the housework before the murderous heat sets in). She cooked for two meals, did some dishes and left by 9:30. The doors were then closed and locked for security reasons. The maid returned at 4:30 and did dishes, swept and set things up for the next day. By 6:30 or 7:00 she was gone.

    So even though I grew up in India, I did have a lot of privacy, the maid was treated like a human being, and everyone was reasonably happy (except on the days when the maid was sick and couldn't come to work). If your maid lives on site, then set the boundaries early, do not hesitate to lock valuables up (no one will be offended, it's expected that you will take care of your valuables), be fair and don't be a pushover. Of course, the one major disadvantage you have is that you don't speak the language. So your maid, if she wants, can totally take you for a ride in a way that my savvy mother would never allow.

  3. "Where does she bathe? (Might seem odd and not really our concern, but there's no traditional washing facility in the quarters.)"

    Umm...with all the hullabaloo about what one should call one's domestic worker, I find this a bit strange. I come from a middle class family in Kolkata and I've lived in Delhi for over two years on my own. I could not afford/did not want to employ anyone in the small apartments that I could afford to rent in Delhi. However, my parents have always had both live-in as well as non live in domestic help/workers. Using our toilets were never ever an issue. This not using toilet, fairly common I would think in many households in India is very much a product of caste based avoidance and fear of 'pollution'. I'm surprised to see you replicating the same things by confining a person to a 8/12 feet room without showering facilities in the Delhi summers.
    I guess you guys don't blog here anymore and won't see this. But for what it's worth, if you really have to be politically correct then don't post such obviously discriminatory things

  4. Thanks for the comment, and I haven't blogged here recently as I've repatriated back to the states. I never followed up this post with what actually happened...

    Were some of the questions I posed ignorant? Absolutely. However, they do accurately reflect things going through my mind at the time, whether politically correct or not (and I don't claim to maintain politcal correctness at all times; this is, after all, a blog, not the news).

    When she actually moved into the house, she asked if she could use the guest bathroom to fill washing water each morning. Obviously, we said yes.

    Here's something that's actually discriminatory (but what I learned from all of our help and heard from many others) - many of these people will only work for expats. I have no idea the "why" behind this. It could be ecomonic (i.e., we don't understand the true labor market, have the means to overpay without feeling cheated, and willingly do) or it could what our cook claimed, that the treatment from expats was, in general, better than that from locals. Obviously, I have no data to support this and welcome any sort of debate.

    What I won't do try to make it sound like I in any way discriminated against my staff. In the two years I was in India, I was fortunate to find good, hard-working, honest people that became part of mmy family and with whom I still have contact today.