All of us at one point or another have employed or employ housekeeping services on a regular basis. Housekeeping is one of the biggest informal sectors in India and possibly the world. The amount of unskilled labor employed in the housekeeping industry exceeds millions. Housekeeping has become an employment sector in itself and is providing stable jobs to millions of people. Almost every middle class family and every high class family employs housekeepers for a number of jobs. Housekeeper is an almost unnoticed job that is taken for granted and often abused and ill-treated.
Housekeeping itself is a broad term for a number of jobs like cleaning, cooking, maintenance, grocery shopping, laundry etc. The rise of housekeeping as an employment opportunity largely stems from ancient Indian practice of caste system, reinforced by the British rule in India. House servants have been ever present in the domestic set-up and can also be found in offices across the country where in clerks or peons are often tasked with completing household tasks. In ancient India, the 4 varnas all had their specific jobs that suited their talents to help the society in maintaining a structure that increased the productivity as each member of the society had a specified job and people could choose what they wanted to do base on their interests and talents. The system was distorted with time and became the caste system that plagues the nation. The offices have low skilled employees who are paid meager wages and to earn enough money to sustain their household or to get into good books of their bosses, these people agree to carry out the household tasks hoping for a side salary.
The housekeeper can be seen as a second-in-command in the house, executing whatever instructions are being given. In case of larger households or establishments, the housekeeper is under a steward or butler or an in charge that looks over all the other servants. These ‘head servants’ supervise the housekeepers on their various jobs and their job is to ensure that the housekeepers are doing their job. They work as the chain connecting the owners to the housekeepers and ensure that the needs and instructions of the owners are carried out to the dot. The head servants are responsible for all the servants and are liable for any indiscipline or unethical act that the servants may do.
The job of housekeeping is one that employs a large number of people and has been around for a long time. In the west, housekeeping has become a recognized industry and is covered under wage laws. The similar cannot be said about India. The Indian situation is one where more often than not there is disparity of wages and exploitation of underage children under the guise of housekeeping and in areas where there is a dearth of good housekeepers the housekeepers charge exorbitant amounts of money. There may be issues on both sides of the coin and all of it can be traced back to the lack of recognition for this sector and the lack of acceptance for this sector. The society as a whole does not really place the people working as housekeepers at a respectable pedestal and these people are looked down upon. Often the ones blamed for theft and other mischief, there is a general lack of trust and lack of respect on both sides and this can lead to a situation where in the two sides find it hard to cooperate.
The housekeeping industry employs people who are mainly trying to ensure a basic livelihood or minimum income to run their households and give their kids a better future or just survive. These people are from the lowest strata of the society and that also contributes the status of being these people not being considered at a respectable level.
The various government officials are provided with government employed housekeepers such as cooks, gardeners, drivers, washer men, house maids etc. All these posts are filled through vacancies and officers taking tests to ensure that the applicants have the required skills. The ambit of housekeeping can also be spread out to encompass municipal jobs like cleaning of streets etc. All these traditionally ‘menial’ jobs can be easily industrialized by making the sector a formal one with government recognition, a supervising body, a law safeguarding the interests of all the stakeholders and a definite dispute resolution body.
Housekeeping industry has a great potential if the sector can be organized and the parliament enacts a law to safeguard the rights of the housekeepers and works to ensure these rights. Only after a law is passed that safeguards these rights can one expect there to be a system that administers and upholds industry standards, ensuring minimum wages, labor rights and the right of the employer of quality service, qualified service and registered housekeepers putting the mind of the employer at ease. Legitimizing these jobs by giving them a legal status will elevate millions of people in status and work towards changing the outlook of the society towards these people.
By enacting a supervising law, the government can legitimize the practice and transform this informal sector into a formal one leading to an increase in the national GDP, bringing a whole section of the society into the mainstream. Recognizing housekeeping as a formal job will open opportunities for a formal training that can be imparted and learnt that will ensure a minimum wage bringing the overall house income of the people higher and add to the purchasing power of the people giving a huge boost to the economy. It can easily be asserted that once there is minimum wage fixed and rules put in place to stop the malign practices of child labour and abuse that is faced by the housekeepers. A certification course will eliminate the fear of substandard service quality and give the house owners a resort to take in case of a grievance. Organising the housekeeping sector will transform the job into an industry serving millions of people driving the GDP forward. This gives the lower strata the opportunity to truly come out and compete on a level playing field and will help these people to gain recognition and be accepted and respected as equal members of the same society.
Creating a body that oversees the whole process of training of housekeepers, certifying them and keeping a record along with prior work records, employer feedback and creating a database of customers and taking feedback from the housekeepers with regards to the behavior etc. of the owners will create a self-correcting and balancing ecosystem wherein people could choose who they want and find out about the people they have employed. A system that ensures safety and rights of both the employed and employer will make this sector flourish and could be assimilated into the service sector. The dispute resolution body will ensure swift resolution of any disputes and will help in resolving issues that largely go unnoticed.
Millions of people becoming part of the system will open up the possibilities of targeted welfare schemes and programs aimed at alleviating this particular section of the society. The biggest issue for the government is to ensure that the whole strata of society knows about the beneficiary schemes and takes advantage of it. One of the main reasons for the disparity in development of various sections of people is because of the limited information that is accessible and how the large section of the society remains oblivious to the existence of a lot of welfare schemes. Legitimizing this sector will open up this section to the mainstream society and bring them up in stature.
The housekeeping industry has a lot of potential and it is waiting for its potential to be realized. The govt. won’t take up the matter unless the people come out and demand for a change. The perspective that sees housekeepers as the lowest level of society has to be changed if one wants to build a nation where everyone is truly equal. Without the opportunity to come forward and compete and get the same chances and resources, there can never be true development.