Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Maid Up

Three related bits have been working in my head today. And before I sat down to type about them I caught a whiff of another bit, also related, from the background anchor noise on television. The three and half items are related by one word, one entity - maid. In the language of roundabout, it becomes the gender neutral domestic help.

Yesterday my mother alerted me to the TOI headline: Minimum wage mooted for domestic help in state. We did the math, we traced some history and carried on a conversation dominated by this news snippet. On the one hand I was very uneasy at the image of a harassing employer with which I must be slotted merely because I employ and on the other I was thinking of how a government wage minimum might help my maid who works in three houses and is always on the move to get work done. The thing about domestic help is that it is more a relationship than an employment. And that is where the domain gets murky.

Oh to be rid of servants, for all the emotions they breed - trust, suspicion, benevolence, gratitude, philanthropy - are necessarily bad, reads a diary entry of Viriginia Woolf in 1930. She seemed to have been perpetually in trouble over domestic help. That aside, her observation is pretty accurate. And that is why I offer the word relationship instead of employment because the latter implies a certain set of expectations and duties and hours all for a certain salary and additional benefits. The former, however, is vague, confusing; in the long run the boundary lines get invisible and control keeps moving from one end to the other. Both play their cards, usually emotional blackmail, and figure out ways to move on. How can one quantify a relationship?

When one tries to quantify, expect professionalism or even be professional, the relationship will be a super disaster. And, honestly, all the emotional tossing around is tiring even though it ensures steady state on shaky legs. You will love your maid one day, you will hate her the next. Fact. Replace 'maid' with 'friend', 'lover', 'husband' and the like and the statement will still sit pretty. Human nature.

Does being human also involve taking advantage of the weaker? You bet. The half story that the television anchor was dissecting is the presently hot Shin*y Ah*ja r*pe case. The wife came out to strongly support her husband. The question remains: who was the weaker?

A few weeks ago my cousin who was discussing her maid woes with me remarked that she did not know how to handle her maid. How do you know when to put your foot down and when to turn a blind eye? I wish there were seven steps to domestic governance that you could offer a copy of when such questions are asked. Sadly, no one knows the answer. It is as elusive as trying to figure out how to make marriages stick, how to be patient with your kids, how to be happy forever. There is no answer; rather, the answer keeps changing.

Will minimum wage help? Certainly. The question is who will be the beneficiary of such a rule.