Wednesday, March 25, 2009

PBS Movie about Indian Domestic Workers

There’s widespread resistance to acknowledging that our comfort is based on someone else’s hardship and on the perpetuation of that hardship. But it’s an opportunity for change: at the individual level as well as through legislation for better wages and benefits for domestic workers. -Nishtha Jain, filmmaker

PBS is showing a documentary, Lakshmi and Me, about a maid in Mumbai, made by one of her employers. The few clips on the website were startling and disturbing to us and we're hoping to see the whole thing somehow. If you're in the States, please check the website for local showings.

For me, the question of poverty and how to make a real difference for anybody here has been a big and recurring concern. The problem is huge and for better or worse the strategy we've settled on is to try to help those closest to us, our employees.

And yet I can't help but wonder if we're doing the right thing, or going about it in the right way. As often as not in Varanasi attempts we made to help were met with refusal from our employees or scorn from our Indian aquaintances.

I try to tell myself that by employing anyone I am helping, at least a little bit. And by treating the people who work for us with kindness and respect, and by paying them a generous salary I hope that we're making more than a small difference in their lives. But beyond the short time we have together I don't have much faith that our actions will have done much good, and in fact I worry that I'm causing more difficulties in the long run.

In Varanasi we were very open and friendly with the people who worked for us and in at least one case I fear that that treatment led to our maid losing one of her other jobs. She had become too "uppity" we were told, because of the way we "allowed" her to act in our home and in her relationship with us. In fact we did nothing more extravagant than what any of you would do with a guest or friend visiting your home - offer her something to eat and drink each day, invite her to sit at our table, and take some time getting to know her. We encouraged her to help herself to food when she was hungry (which as one daughter of 6 was likely often) and treated her as an equal. Yes, she washed our dishes and our floors, but I don't think we ever thought any less of her for doing so. And yet that all ammounted to a bad outcome for her, and the censure of us by some of our neighbors. I was told, by a very kindly Indian friend from outside of our neighborhood, "You don't understand how our culture works. You think you are doing a good think by treating the maid like this, but really you are hurting her. Who will hire her now when she expects to be treated as you treated her?"

So... the internal debate rages on. In Pune we have one employee, a woman named Suman who comes everyday to do the dishes and floor. She works for our landlord and a few other families in the building and in all honesty, I'm happy to have her with us. I know for certain that we pay her more than anyone else in the building, and for less work, but I just can't stomach paying any less. How can I pay someone less than $20/month to do things I positively hate and would put off as long as possible? I can't. How much would I want to be paid for washing someone else's dishes and floors every single stinkin' day? A helluva lot more than $20/month, that's for sure.

But, this isn't my country or my culture. How much change can I hope to create? Is it even appropriate to try? How much difference can I hope to make in the short 4 months that we'll know Suman? And at what cost to her, and us?


Grandpa George said...

Hi Maggie,

The exploitation you describe is common in India "now" and has been common worldwide for a long time. Uppity is a term I remember from the 1950s South, though one hears it less today.

Chris probably has told you about Anwar, who lived with us in Scranton. He could not understand how we demeaned ourselves by allowing Chris to work as a dishwasher.

BUT...I am struck by how much the world has changed in the past 20 years. The reduction in poverty in developing countries and the growth of the "middle class" (variously defined) is producing a different world today than the world of the 1980s, and it appears that the change is ongoing.

I just read a book Factory Girls about the 130 middle young Chinese girls who moved to manufacturing centers in the last 10 years. They have a hard life there, and yet, it is some degree of progress for them.

I am reading now "Spin-free Economics: A No-nonsense Guide to Today's Global Economic Debates."--the author contends that there is more agreement about the long-term benefits of globalization and competition. As Amartaya Sen put it "development is freedom"--maybe not immediately for all--but eventually for more than before. Of course, those who benefit from exploitation will continue to resist.

I am struck by the power of literature to sensitize on these issues (eg, White Tiger and Inheiritance of Loss).

Hi to all.

Bradley family said...

Hi Maggie,

I think you are doing the right thing. It is good for people to see that there is a possibility for people to do things differently. It is always good to treat people with more respect.

Growing up in India, the rudeness of the rich to the poor, and the complete disregard of the comfort of the poor by the rich really bothered me (and still does).

I think the real problem is the distribution of wealth. A society with such a gap between rich and poor is not a healthy one. Somehow the distribution of wealth needs to become more even, and then some of the exploitation will stop by itself.

However, in the meantime, keep doing things your way. Maybe seeing a different way will make a few people here and there see things differently, and the effect will eventually cascade to enough people to make a huge difference.

Indians can often be very aggressive with their point of view. Don't let them mow you down! Hold your own, and keep trying to explain your point of view. Good luck!


paul said...

thanks to all for the thoughtful words. this is one of the first sites i check when in need of a study break, and i especially enjoy posts and comments like these.

i appreciate the chance to vicariously experience some of the issues people wrestle with outside of this small library in this small virginia town.

i have no insight to offer but would encourage you to continue sharing your internal debates for the benefit of some of us who wish we could be there.

Grandpa George said...

Tashi Delek.

We learned that this would show at 2am on Friday