Domestic helpers are becoming an integral part of urban Nepali households. Without them, a huge chunk of our lives would be consumed by menial chores, leaving little time for work, date-nights, books and Netflix. In Kathmandu, families, young couples and even single working professionals rely on maids for smooth running of their homes. Despite providing such essential service, domestic helpers are paid very little, are often abused verbally and/or physically, and worse, the work can sometimes be humiliating, with their employers asking them to clean dog poop or fix a clogged washroom drain.
This wouldn’t be the case if there were a system that regulated domestic workers, says Prakash Basnet, founder of Help2Shine, a service that connects domestic helpers to households. The challenges that domestic workers face right now are mostly related to lack of rules or laws to standardize their pay-scale, work-hours, and job description. The general attitude is that maids need to do everything they are asked to because housework entails many different things. 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 there are 250,000 domestic workers in Nepal.
“It’s a booming informal sector and it has to be regulated. But that won’t happen unless the government steps in and makes provisions to systemize it,” says Basnet. 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. Help2Shine is trying to change how domestic helpers are hired and put to work by making both parties sign a contract stating time and work requirements and negotiating a salary based accordingly. But private companies can only do so much when the government isn’t involved. The contracts, after all, have no legal standing. It’s more of a moral obligation—and that, Basnet says, is easy to disregard.
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Thirty-three-year-old Shobha Budathoki who has been working as a domestic help in Kathmandu for eight years says theirs is a thankless job and employers don’t value them. What upsets her the most are the empty promises and assurances people dish out while hiring them. She says it’s common to be told their work will be evaluated and they will be given a raise accordingly in six-months’ time. But Budathoki has worked at the same place for several years without even the mention of an increment. It’s unfair but that’s how things are and there is nothing we can do, she says.
“If the government were to make rules that determined how domestic helpers should be employed, that would make things easy for both the employer and the employee,” says Basnet, because contrary to popular belief, it’s not just domestic helpers who are facing problems at the moment. There are instances where employers are blackmailed and manipulated by their house help as they feel they are indispensable. If the government set up a system to hold both the employers and employees accountable, like in any other professional setting, it could foster a mutually beneficial environment.
Over at City Maids Services Pvt. Ltd. founder Kishori Raut says bringing this informal sector under its wing would be a good source of revenue for the government as well. There’s a lot of untapped potential here, says Raut. That aside, people would become liable for their actions and there would thus be fewer issues. “Problems arise as there is no professionalism at either end. A government body regulating the sector would take care of that. People would have to behave a certain way,” says Raut. Budathoki adds that new regulation could also guarantee job security such that employers wouldn’t be able to fire them over a trivial argument.
Apart from the fact that a lot of issues would either disappear or there would be sensible ways to fix them, the government’s involvement would also make domestic workers feel validated and valued. Raut says the domestic workers registered at his company often refuse to have their pictures taken or request anonymity as they don’t want their close ones to know they are in this line of work. “There is a certain stigma associated with domestic work and the government making rules for it would be the first step to normalizing it,” says Raut.
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The government stepping in and paying attention can help bridge the gap between the employers and domestic help—make both parties aware of their rights and responsibilities. It will also establish a professional setting where there is dignity of labor. The problem today is that people often want their domestic help to be subservient. With no rules on what they can and can’t do, many suffer from the ‘master-complex’, getting away with pretty much anything.
Rajan Joshi, company representative, Wipe Maids and Cleaning Services, says lack of a system leads to exploitation. It’s not unusual for his clients to want to pay as little as possible. The company he says is trying to fix a baseline salary of Rs 10,000 a month for a four-hour job-day but that hasn’t been well received. Joshi says the resistance is understandable given that people have been hiring maids for as low as Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 a month for years now.
“It’s inhumane to expect them to work for that price today because they won’t be able to even feed their families,” he says. By setting rules and regulations and determining the minimum wage the government could improve their situation. “Domestic workers deserve to be paid decently, if not handsomely, but that isn’t the case right now. The government has to pay attention to them. It would help tackle the issue of poverty besides giving both parties involved a place where their complaints are heard and addressed as and when they arise,” he concludes.