Holding the hired help’s hand
Domestic workers are the most unorganised, the most exploited and provide the most needed service in urban India. Helper4U matchmakes employers and employees to help both, writes Aditi Phadnis
When you hire a helper, treat them like you would, any other professional,” says Meenakshi Jain Gupta in media interviews. She recognised the power of networking held by digital technologies to change the lives of the smallest but most crucial entity in busy urban life — the maid. Gupta realised that the women living in the slums of Powai, Mumbai, had a service to offer — and there was a market for the service. But neither the buyer nor the seller knew how to find the other. So she launched a small venture called Maid4U. The basic tenet was professionalism: Both by the employer and the maid. But Gupta went a step beyond that. Her philosophy is: “give the helper the dignity, leave and respect that you expect from your own boss. Treating them as if their labour is bought, will only increase disparity in our society. Treat people who make your life easier every day, as human beings first. Everything else will fall in place”.
Domestic help is arguably the biggest and lowest rung of workers in urban India. They are, by and large unorganised and ‘placement agents’, quite in the manner of head-hunters, are constantly scouting for labour — for a fee and sometimes, more. People — mostly women, looking for jobs can end up paying as much as ~15-20,000 to agents. For a full time domestic, this can represent more than a month’s wages.
And then there are other demands. In most cases, the ‘employment exchange’ is a multistoried building’s guard room. In sum it is an exploitative system where there are no rules of the game.
Gupta does not call her company a placement agency. You do have to pay to register — whether you are hiring a service or offering one. But at a fee of ~300 (plus 5 per cent GST) to register to buy the contacts of one person, this is eminently affordable. You can pay a little more and hire four contacts and upwards. The process continues till you’re found the right person to hire.
On the supply side, when she started out, she would visit slums, explain what she was doing, getting women (men began joining later) how registration with Maid4U could mean getting a job and once they had signed up, collecting their details: identity and security details (like Aadhaar card), telephone numbers in cases where they had a mobile phone, the location where they wanted to work and the kind of work they wanted to do: part time or full time; and of course, the salary.
Job-seeker get notifications about the requirement via SMS and call, and the conversation taken forward till the employer-employee requirements matches. Any peripheral service like criminal background verification, address verification, etc is charged extra.
“Most workers who come to us are either uneducated or minimally educated, are migrants from backward states, and are mostly, the prime earners for their families,” Gupta told an interviewer. “They are then trained and polished,” to suit the preferences of individuals, who want their help to be well-groomed, trustworthy, know how to handle hi-tech appliances, and follow hygiene.
Maid4U changed to Helper4U as the company began adding to its bouquet of services: Now it was not just cooks and housekeeping maids but also drivers, helpers for care of the elderly, nannies and other domestic support staff. On many occasions, Gupta would stumble on a gem: Someone who was talented and was wasting herself on housekeeping duties. A young woman who was clearly head and shoulders above the rest was trained specially and got a job as a receptionist in a hotel although she had little formal education.
Initially, Helper4U received a no-equity grant from Internet.org that helped them sustain their operations. They are now looking at grants from prospective investors to expand the scope of the project. They have helped provide employment to nearly 5000 people so far. The company is 10-strong.
Gupta emphasises on professionalism. There is a boilerplate contract that the company encourages both employers and employees to sign, so that nothing is lost in translation and everything is clear to both parties. She says the tendency is, on a day when there is little work, to get maids to perform other duties – like ironing clothes or massaging the employer’s feet. ‘when you don’t expect your boss to ask you to do things like this, why expect your employee to do it?’ she asks.
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