A 55-year-old domestic worker was slapped because she forgot to close the main gate. She still works at the same place because ‘these things happen’.
A 33-year-old house help was fined Rs 500 because she broke a flower vase. Every other month, she says she gets less than the Rs 3,500 she was initially promised as she ‘always makes mistakes’.
A 32-year-old mother of two sons, who works from 7 am to 8 pm in various households, had to travel to her village for five days. All of her employers told her she wouldn’t be paid for those days. At every place, she had worked for over six months, without a single day off.
Maids in Kathmandu don’t have it easy. Working hours aren’t fixed. They aren’t paid decent salaries. They don’t get holidays, except for a day or two during Dashain. They can’t choose what they will or won’t do. And, worse, they are often abused—verbally and/or physically.
And yet, they continue to work under dire conditions because their families depend on their earnings, however meager. What they make helps them pay rent, buy food, or send their children to school.
“No one has hit me but I have friends who have been slapped and beaten with brooms for breaking kitchen items or daring to argue when being scolded,” says Kabita Tamang, 37, who has been working at different homes in Kathmandu for a decade now. Her first salary as a house help fetched her Rs 700 a month.
Tamang says at the first house she worked in, she would get scolded for little things like if they ran out of detergent or the dishes clanked while being put away. The comments would be scathing and derogatory. This, she adds, is normal in most of the places she has worked at. Nasty comments from employers are par for course.
The problems stem from our work not being respected, says Tamang. Some of her friends, she adds, work long hours for very less (as low as Rs 3,000 a month for two hours a day) as they themselves don’t consider what they do important. They hesitate to ask for a raise or to express their dissatisfaction over what they are told to do (like clean the toilets, for instance) fearing they will be replaced.
In Kathmandu, families, young couples, and even single working professionals largely depend on maids. The fact is everybody needs a house help. Without one, it’s like you are missing a limb. But housework is considered a menial task and those who do it are placed in the lowest rung of the social hierarchy.
This can change only if there is a system in place that ensures their rights, says Jashmin Jimee, associate at Hamri Bahini, a green social enterprise that aims to create respectable jobs for disadvantaged women.
Since 2013 Hamri Bahini has been placing women in various households for different purposes like cleaning, cooking, and babysitting. However, they have fixed hourly rates as well as the provision for weekly and yearly holidays. Unlike many maids in Kathmandu, the women they find jobs for don’t have to work erratic hours and get a day off at the end of the week.
“We also make sure the employers are ready to give their maids an annual 10 percent raise,” says Jimee.
Tamang says she was paid Rs 3,000 a month at one of the many homes she worked at. She worked for four years without a raise, till she eventually decided to quit and take up a 10 to 5 babysitting job for Rs 7,500 a month.
At City Maids Services Pvt. Ltd, the founder, Kishori Raut, says he sometimes get the sense that some people who call to inquire about the company’s services just want cheap labor.
“Most people seem to have a master-and-servant approach to this when in actuality it should be a symbiotic relationship, where both parties benefit,” says Raut.
Despite the relationship between maids and employers being one of interdependence, maids often end up as the disadvantaged party with no say whatsoever about the kind of work they do, the hours, or their pay.
Moreover, the system of hiring, even today, is mostly done informally, by word of mouth. Salary is determined randomly, based on what the employers are willing to pay or what they consider ‘enough’.
Shobha Budhathoki, 32, has been working as a domestic help in Kathmandu for seven years. She feels even small, basic things—like talking to them properly and not scolding them, a Rs 500 annual raise, or a day off every month if not every week—would help domestic workers feel secure and valued in their jobs.
“I don’t think we are asking for much. But the sad fact is we get so little in return for our labor. It’s hurtful but there is nothing we can do about it,” she says. Budhathoki adds that oftentimes, while being hired, they are told they need to do certain chores for a certain amount. But as days go by, the workload increases, one at a time, while the renumeration remains the same.
Prakash Basnet, founder of Help2Shine, a service that connects domestic helpers to households, says 90 percent of the 4,000 maids registered at the company have had similar, or worse, experience. Basnet says the company’s primary aim is to make sure women looking to work as domestic helpers find safe spaces where their work is valued.
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say domestic helpers basically run the homes they work in. But they aren’t given that recognition. Rather, there is an underlying bias that makes people look down on them,” says Basnet.
This, Basnet believes, reinforces class discrimination and traps maids in a complex web of poverty from where there is no breaking free, no matter how hard they try.
“Many women have asked us not to reveal they are domestic workers. There is no dignity in the work, even though what they do is so essential to keeping a home running smoothly,” he adds.
Missing data, forgotten workers
According to Nepal’s labor force survey 2017/18, there are over three million women in the labor market. A report titled ‘Domestic Workers, Risk and Social Protection in Nepal’—by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a global research-policy network—estimates that there are 250,000 domestic workers in Nepal.
Data on them is mostly missing as domestic workers aren’t recognized as an occupational group by the Central Bureau of Statistics. The Labor Act of 2017 specifies that the government can set a separate minimum wage for domestic workers but nothing has been done so far. Domestic workers, though an intrinsic part of our society, have completely skipped the government’s radar.
Raut and Basnet both say it’s difficult to ensure domestic workers are treated and paid well as they fall under the informal sector and there are no set rules and regulations governing their employment.
Hiring of domestic workers though companies like Hamri Bahini, City Maid Services, Help2Shine and similar services can help create a better work environment for them. These companies provide workers a platform where they can lodge their complaints and which can campaign on their behalf.
A 28-year-old domestic help in Lalitpur who found work through Help2Shine says she feels secure because of the company’s backing. Being recruited through a company, she says, keeps her employers honest and gives her the confidence that her problems, should any arise, will be addressed.
However, even if domestic workers don’t go through human resource companies and find jobs on their own, within their communities, there needs to be a way to guarantee their rights.
“To change things, it’s going to take strong policies from the government’s side and more empathy from employers,” says Basnet, adding those who can afford to pay a maid can definitely afford to pay them a little better.
As Budhathoki puts it, “A 1,000 rupees might not be a big amount for those who employ us, but for us it means assured snacks at school for our children.”