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

Business Standard - - DEMOCRACY AT WORK -

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.

THE OTHER IN­DIA

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