The neglected domestic work sector is getting a dose of much-needed schooling, finds Teja Lele Desai

Rashmi Soreing left school after Grade 8 and started looking for work. She wanted to help her father Pasues, a small farmer in Rampur, Jharkhand, make ends meet in the family of eight. At the invitation of a relative, she came to New Delhi and found a job as a full-time domestic help in Vasant Kunj. She made Rs. 3,500 per month and stayed there for six years, but was unhappy and uncomfortable. She had no space to call her own, the work was hard, and the money not great.

When she heard of a new company that trained domestic workers, she decided to try it out. In March this year, she registered with Domesteq. Rashmi, now 26, has a job as housekeeper, a salary of Rs. 10,000 a month, and her own room. She’s well on her way to fulfilling her dreams.

Change is afoot in the domestic work sector, until now largely unorganised.

Consisting mainly of women, the sector has long grappled with exploitation and mistreatment – salaries are appallingly low, work hours not regulated, and paid days-off a distant dream. Full-time maids make anywhere From Rs. 2,500 to Rs 5,000 a month, depending on the city and locality. Compare this with the minimum monthly wage for unskilled workers (according to Delhi government decree) set at Rs. 6,084. In 2011, the National Advisory Council recommended that domestic workers receive at least 15 days of paid annual leave and a minimum per diem wage of Rs. 115. All these have remained recommendations.

But now, with both spouses in most urban households working, the mindset about domestic staff is changing. Couples are willing to give higher salaries and weekly days-off in return for well-trained help. No surprises then that domestic staff training and placement agencies have sprung up in every big city. These agencies are grooming and transforming ordinary domestic workers into a professional army.

Enter the trainer

New Delhi-based Domesteq Service Solutions was established by Shawn Runacres, a former diplomat’s wife, to help expats find household help. In 2012, it was taken over by B-ABLE, which aims to bring professionalism to the domestic sector. B-ABLE Domesteq offers training in core skills such as cooking, housekeeping, child care, elderly care, and life skills as well as skills training for office assistants.

Ramachandra Rao Roddam, Project Manager, Domesteq, says understanding the customer’s needs is essential. “We focus also on the worker’s preferences. It is important that these two are carefully matched. We also stress on due diligence and reference checks. In today's world, where security is an issue, this is very important. A quick reference check of the employer is also done.”

In India, most maids don’t have a well-defined job profile. They are all-rounders, juggling tasks of cooking, housekeeping and child care. The training must, therefore, take into account all of this.

At Empower Pragati, brainchild of a former CEO of Bharti Telecom, the training covers health, hygiene, cooking, child, patient and old-age care. Students are also trained in using appliances such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, and washing machines. They are given grooming tips about well-kempt hair, nails and hands. Specific tasks such as dusting or making beds are taught. Roddam says sometimes there are specific requests. “An employer wants a worker trained in a particular area such as continental cooking or nursing. We provide these skills as well.”

Empower Pragati offers two livelihood opportunities through its Home Manager programme. The 60-90 day housekeeping course offers training in life skills, self-esteem, problem-solving, money management, hygiene, basic communication, English, and household appliances. The 90-day home nursing programme, apart from the housekeeping training, offers the fundamentals of non-invasive medical care for infants, the aged and the physically challenged.

Most placement agencies charge employers a commission (between four-eight weeks of the maid’s salary) while some demand a lifetime registration fee. A meeting is arranged and a trial period offered for the employer and employee to like each other. If the employer finds a shortfall, say, a candidate who can’t use the washing machine, a trainer is sent to assist her. If something else crops up, the agency may provide up to three optional candidates.

Where they come from

Domestic placement agencies often source potential workers from villages in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. Tie-ups with local NGOs and Panchayats help, as do spot recruitment drives in slums.

“Most women hear about Domesteq through word of mouth. We are now tying up with NGOs and also have a direct mobilisation drive in which our teams go to slums and create awareness about the need for training and the need for professional support,” says Roddam.

Referrals are often the way most connections are made. “One woman happy with her work tells another, who tells another, and it goes on. Often, we do provisional registrations but take women on board only after investigating their background and conducting reference checks,” says Lalit Shukla, who set up Baroda-based Saath two years ago.

Even universities seem to have woken up to the demand for trained domestic help. Yeshwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University (YCMOU) recently launched a course for domestic staff in Maharashtra. Students will be taught basic language and communication skills, health science, mathematics, general knowledge, home remedies, first-aid, cleanliness, hygiene, food, and caring for the ill and elderly.

Registering with a professional agency, apart from offering better employment options, also translates into a better future. Empower Pragati transfers salaries into the workers’ bank accounts after making provident fund deductions. Shukla has a contract that details out the humane approach employers must use. “Going forward, we plan to introduce empowering schemes like health Insurance and more, to benefit this grossly neglected sector,” says Roddam.