It’s almost eight years ago that I moved to India and mentioned to my grown-up sons that I was looking for a maid. They were horrified.
We’re from the UK, are quite liberal and left wing. I’m actually from a relatively poor working class background. The idea of having a servant was also way beyond the usual more acceptable (in the UK anyway) middle class practice of a cleaner.
It introduces a class dimension. It’s seen as a bit 19th century, old-fashioned, elitist and servants are employed by people who are not like us! Who see themselves a cut above the rest, or the hoi polloi , a case of upstairs/downstairs. In our world view, its all completely unacceptable.
I explained as best I could. It was important to provide employment particularly as there was no real welfare safety net in India. I was fitting in with the way things are, and my approach would be different (yep, it would be!) I would be a sensitive and caring employer.
So I asked my friends Ganga and Cariappa if they could recommend someone. The maid network came up with someone pretty quickly.
I was called round to meet someone.
So what’s the bigger picture? once again Tripti Lahiri helps out:
“Britain saw the number of servants drop from 250,000 in 1951 to 32,000 two decades later.”
India followed a similar trajectory until that is, the 1970’s when there began a dramatic increase in the numbers of servants (we’ll come back to terminology later) employed and this is a situation reflected globally.
“According to international labour groups, as of 2010. there were more than 50 million such workers globally, an increase of nearly 20 million from 1995, most of this made up of women. There are now over 40 million female domestic workers globally.”
So OK that’s enough with all the big numbers, what does this mean in practice for the women involved? who are they? where are they from and what lives do they lead?