Once, when no one was looking, a tear dropped into the soup boiling on the stove. My frustration went up in steam, mocking me as it swirled up and out through the spinning exhaust fan of the range hood.
Growing up my mother had impressed upon me the benefits of being a career woman. She had made it clear that she wanted better for me than what she was used to: slaving at the stove. But she had set impossibly high standards on how to raise children. I recall that all the meals she served were fresh and hot off the stove.
Our household was very careful about spending money. We saved on travel—we hardly did any. We saved on clothes—no designer wear for us. We saved on transport—we took the bus everywhere. We saved on eating out—my mother was a fabulous cook. But having a domestic helper in the house was non-negotiable. A lady came to clean the house like clockwork at 6.30 am. I would open my eyes to see Channo reach under my bed with an Indian broom and whisper “good morning” with a toothy grin. She was a village lady with a drunk for a husband and four children who were around my age. We were her family during the day, so that she could feed the family she went to at night.
A sizzling drop of oil jumped off the pan and landed on my hand making it sting. Here I was, Miss-Work-Hard-At-Your-Books-Computer Engineer, in my California home chopping tomatoes and letting my onion tears mingle with my tears of frustration. The drop of oil would leave a mark for me to stare at when I typed out my marketing plan for the dotcom startup where I worked.
Running out of the house to work with two children invariably meant leaving the house in shambles. Returning home at 6 p.m. to a house that a hurricane had run through in the morning, I was faced with the task of feeding a hot meal to hungry, tired children.
It was a recipe for disaster. I had shunned the cans of tomato and frozen meats that would have made life easier and was trying to live up to my mother’s standards of a clean house and a nutritious meals for the family.
It was getting close to impossible without help. My spouse was largely MIA (Missing in Action), tired or traveling. Tensions on the division of work at home were mounting. Battle lines in the war on the domestic frontier were being drawn. “Was getting help worse than getting a divorce?” I thought begrudgingly.
Kashmir and her Punjabi Recipes
It was about that time that Kashmir, wearing a pink salwar kameez, gold hoops in her ears, and ballet flats on her feet walked into our lives. She had come to cook us traditional Indian fare. A parent at my son’s kindergarten class introduced her to me. Kashmir had been cooking for them for a few years by then. They had gotten her number from an advertisement she had pinned on the wall of a local Indian grocery store. Straight from the kitchen hearths of her village in Punjab, her food had a rustic taste. The kitchen sparkled twice a week as she scrubbed diligently.
While Kashmir worked as a babysitter to a four month old, her own children were farmed off at birth to her mother-in-law in India. She carried pictures of her three-year-old boy and one-year old girl. “My son is so handsome. He takes after my husband,” she once said, pride shining in her eyes as she held out the picture. Her husband worked at an Indian restaurant as a waiter.
But she was not to last. Kashmir, with her endless energy and Punjabi recipes vanished from my life after a short stint. It was only while her regular client had been on holiday in India that she had been able to cook for me and she was too busy to take me on as a client.
Many families around me didn’t seem to need help to fight their battles on the domestic frontier. Mothers, fathers and children stepped in to share the chores in order to keep the meals healthy and homes humming efficiently.
It was surprising to note, however that recent International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates based on national surveys and/or censuses of 117 countries, place the number of domestic workers at around 53 million around the world. Additionally, the ILO states, experts say that due to the fact that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million. In developing countries, they make up at least four to twelve percent of wage employment.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which Congress enacted to ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, excluded domestic workers from its protection. Thereby not recognizing domestic work as real work and leaving domestic workers as part of the informal economy.
The Daily Grind
At a meeting of my book club, I broached the subject of domestic help. How many times do you use the services of a maid to clean the closets, fold the laundry, make the beds, and help in the kitchen? I asked.
“Our maid comes over three times a week and we have a cleaning service once a week,” said one woman. “I pay $18 an hour, far above the minimum wage of $8.”
Many Indian American households pay anywhere from $12 to $24 as the hourly rate and use the services of the worker twice or three times a week for a total of 6 to 8 hours per week. Some members share the services of a worker thereby assuring the worker of enough number of hours to make her trip worthwhile. “The drive from Hayward to Los Altos is a long drive. Once my cook comes here she wants to work for at least eight hours before heading back. I make sure that my maid has enough clients. Three of my girlfriends and I share a cook,” said a Los Altos resident.
“It would be impossible for me to go to work if Sonia was not there to help me with the cooking and laundry at home,” said a Cupertino resident and teacher at De Anza Community College.
Where do you find help if you are not part of a group of friends who share a maid?
“Craig’s list,” said one. “Advertise in a Spanish magazine,” said the other.
Sometime after Kashmir left I advertised in both places, online and off-line. My phone rang off the hook for three days straight. I had soon shortlisted some young ladies.
Helping with the American Dream
The first woman who came to my house was escorted by her husband. The couple was well turned out. They had a beautiful home, he said, which his wife kept in ship shape. Now that they were empty nesters he thought she could put her exceptional housekeeping skills to work outside the home. They were United States citizens and spoke reasonably good English. The woman seemed a reluctant recruit in my battle on the domestic front, having been volunteered by her husband, so I had to pass.
The second woman who responded to my advertisement was a waitress in a Mexican restaurant looking to supplement her income. She was young, attractive with good skills in the kitchen, and spoke fluent English. However her enthusiasm was larger than her time. She could never make the time to come.
The third woman was a grumpy thirty-eight-year old who spoke no English. She had three children in Mexico and an unemployed husband. She renegotiated the hourly wage on every visit. We had long chats without either one of us understanding what the other said. When her mother, the caregiver of her children, refused to take care of them anymore she and her husband decided to return to Mexico. Sadly it would not be feasible for them to return to California as purchasing five airline tickets to come back to the United States was unaffordable.
The next person to enter our door worked with an Indian family every summer when the elderly in-laws visited from India. The visiting grandmother had taught her to cook Indian food. “This would improve her job prospects,” the grandmother explained to me, “A cook makes more money than a cleaner.” And sure enough Monica was making $20 to $24 an hour. She was also going to school to become proficient in English so she could work at a dry cleaning store, a job with benefits. A single mom, her focus was to provide the American Dream for her son Christopher.
Around 83 per cent of domestic workers are women or girls and many are migrant workers, estimates ILO. Therefore, bringing domestic workers into the fold of the formal economy in addition to looking after the rights of the worker will also have strong implications for migration and gender equality.
A Growing Movement
In March 2008, Vilma Serralta, a live-in domestic and nanny for a family in Atherton, California sued her employers for forcing her to work 90 hours a week without overtime pay for four years. The family settled with Vilma in 2009 for an undisclosed amount. According to New America Media, Vilma’s settlement strengthened a growing movement among domestic workers. “I began to speak in public about this abuse because they would pay me monthly, but they never paid me overtime, nor holidays,” Serralta told New America Media, who reported that “Serralta’s case represents a watershed moment in organizing domestic workers to unite against labor abuse.” “For us, Vilma Serralta’s case is very important, because this creates a great precedent at the international and state levels and across movements,” Guillermina Catellanos, an organizer at the Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, and a member of the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) was reported as saying. “That is what we want employers to know—that domestic work is dignified and should be recognized like any other job,”
The California Story
In June 2010, The California State Legislature passed resolution ACR 163. The resolution encouraged the federal and state government to create greater protections for domestic workers ensuring paid days off and severance upon termination, in addition to an eight-hour day and minimum wage assurances.
The resolution highlighted that “domestic workers play a critical role in California’s economy, working to ensure the health and prosperity of California families and freeing others to participate in the workforce, which is increasingly necessary in these difficult economic times.”
However it feared that “The vast majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants who, because of race and sex discrimination and fear of deportation, are particularly vulnerable to unlawful employment practices and abuses.”
On September 26 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights effective January 1, 2014. For the workers and their employer families it is important to understand how this Bill of Rights impacts them. California is the third state after New York and Hawaii to enact a Bill of Rights for domestic workers. In New York it came into effect on November 29 2010 while Hawaii signed one in July 2013.
As per the new law, domestic work employees “shall not be employed more than nine hours in any workday or more than 45 hours in any work-week unless the employee receives one and one-half times the employee’s regular rate of pay” for all overtime hours.
The DC Chapter
More than 200 domestic workers arrived in DC for the 2013 National Congress, organized by the NDWA. A rally was staged and Congress was urged to institute protections, guarantee minimum wages and overtime protections for domestic workers.
According to a report titled “Home Economics—The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work” produced by the NDWA, “Despite their central role in the economy, domestic workers are often employed in substandard jobs. Working behind closed doors, beyond the reach of personnel policies, and often without employment contracts, they are subject to the whims of their employers.”
Truth is, most domestic workers are hired without a work contract, through a private agreement between the family and the worker. Individuals, when hiring domestic workers, often do not think of themselves as employers. Now it would be in the interest of both parties to have written work agreements, laying down both duties and compensation. The employer is obliged to keep accurate and daily records of days and hours worked, including meal and rest breaks. For instance, if during a break the worker is not free to leave the premises, say if the children are napping, she/he is considered to be on duty.
In cases where the help is hired from a third party, the contract with the third party should clearly state who employs the caregiver and is therefore responsible for all tax and insurance compliance, the family or the agency.
The Bill of Rights, says a report published by the NDWA, recognizes that domestic work is real work that makes other work possible and that it plays a significant role in the United States economy. Domestic workers help meet the physical, emotional, and social needs of families.
“Domestic workers free the time and attention of millions of other workers, allowing them to engage in the widest range of socially productive pursuits with undistracted focus and commitment. The lives of these workers would be infinitely more complex and burdened in the absence of the labor of the domestic workers who enter their homes each day,” says the report.
Diplomatic Immunity and Khobragade
For years stories have circulated in Washington, D.C. and New York about diplomats and their underpaid domestic help. On December 11, 2013, U.S. authorities charged Devyani Khobragade, the then Deputy Consul General of the India, with committing visa fraud. Khobragade and Richard had signed a written contract that stipulated an hourly salary of $9.75 per hour and 40 working hours per week. This contract was submitted along with Richard’s visa application to the United States visa office. Six months later, Richard filed a complaint with the United States authorities that she was being paid less than the sum stipulated in this contract and, much below the United States minimum wage.
As per the U.S. Justice department, “To apply for an A-3 visa, the visa applicant must submit an employment contract signed by both the employer and the employee which must include, among other things, a description of duties, hours of work, the hourly wage—which must be the greater of the minimum wage under U.S. federal and state law, or the prevailing wage—for all working hours, overtime work, and payment.”
There have been several incidents involving senior diplomats in the United States and domestic staff brought from overseas. According to NBC News, Break the Chain, a non-profit working with domestic workers has since 1997 helped 250 workers that have lodged complaints about being grossly underpaid, abused or essentially held captive by consular or World Bank staffers.
In 2010 a United States judge recommended that an Indian diplomat and her husband pay a maid nearly $1.5m in compensation for being forced to work without pay. A year later another maid of the Indian consul general, Prabhu Dayal, accused him of forced labor and sexual harassment. He called the charges “complete nonsense” and they were later dropped.
Diplomat employers have worn the veil of diplomatic immunity to hide from the enforcement of the Workers Bill of Rights. This has left the two countries walking a diplomatic tight rope hung over a minefield. The question is should A-3 visas be done away altogether to end this balancing act?
[Stop Press: The charges against Devyani Khobragade were dismissed by a U.S. District Court on the grounds of diplomatic immunity on March 12 but a few days later Devyani Khobragade was re-indicted by the federal government and faces arrest if she returns to the United States.)
The Cook Needs a Babysitter
Three years had passed since our last cooking session when I called Kashmir again. “Can you come over? I want to make makki ki roti and sarson da saag.”
An older and much more harried Kashmir jingled her way into my kitchen. Spinach leaves along with the mustard greens, were chopped boiled and ground in a flurry of activity.
“You know didi, I had a son last year and instead of sending him to Punjab I chose to bring my other two children to America. Now I can’t stay out in the evenings anymore.”
This new Kashmir, mother of three, was focused on getting her work done and rushing home so her husband could leave for work. They were a tag team.
“Kashmir, how is everything at home?”
“My husband went to Punjab for six months because he was sick. He returned to California with our children. He is not keeping too well. Six pills, he has to take six pills a day. But he is back at his job in the restaurant. He is a manager now. It is the children I worry about. I must provide them with a hot nutritious meal every day, pick and drop them to school and on top of all else I have my work. I am not babysitting any more. Now I cook for families.”
Kashmir seemed to be losing her balancing battle on the domestic front and needed help herself. She hired a baby sitter for the hours her husband and she were both at work.
Neighbors, family members and friends step in, for a fee, to support the domestic worker on their domestic front and help raise the children. This fee can be a fixed amount of twenty dollars as is in the case of Monica, who pays her sister twenty dollars any time she steps in to rescue Monica, and Sonia whose neighbor is called upon to step in for twenty dollars as well.
The engine of the Valley is kept chugging by the likes of Kashmir, Monica and other hard-working women of the Valley. Domestic workers allow us to lean in and engage in our work with undistracted focus and commitment. Kashmir, Monica, Sonia, Monica’s sister, Sonia’s neighbor and I we all need each other to win our battles on the domestic front. We have each other’s back.
Ritu Marwah is a resident of the Bay Area where she has pursued theater, writing, non-profit marketing, high-tech marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu graduated from Delhi with masters in business, joined the Tata Administrative Service and worked in London for ten years before moving to the Bay Area.