Can technology finally make rich Indians treat their maids like human beings?

Domestic workers need an identity.
Domestic workers need an identity.
Image: AP Photo/Saurabh Das
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On April 08, Anupam Sinhal, co-founder of domestic help recruitment website BookMyBai, created a blog post in which he said he didn’t want any more celebrity clients. Sinhal said his decision was prompted by a slew of incidents involving physical and mental abuse of maids by Bollywood stars availing his company’s service.

“BookMyBai has worked very closely with a lot of Bollywood celebrities and provided them with a good domestic help in Mumbai and other cities and our experience has not been less than horrendous,” Sinhal wrote in his post, which went viral as it detailed some of these bad experiences.

Sinhal was only highlighting the hard truth of India’s domestic help—cooks, maids, cleaners, baby-sitters etc—industry, where there’s no concept of a minimum wage and ill-treatment by employers is rampant. However, Sinhal’s venture has been trying to formalise hiring, and provide dignity to the labour force by organising India’s hugely fragmented domestic help sector.

Will technology succeed in making Indians treat their domestic help like human beings?

Sourcing domestic help

BookMyBai was launched in 2015 by Sinhal and his brother-in-law Vickash Chowdhury in Mumbai.

Its operational principle is simple: Visit the website and put up a request for a household help. The company provides a list of available candidates in the area the client resides in and sets up interviews. The workers discuss their salaries and roles with the employers directly.

“If everything goes fine, then you pay our service charges and the maid begins to work,” 30-year-old Sinhal told Quartz in an interview at his Mumbai office, adding it isn’t an on-demand service like Urban Clap, a startup that connects users with plumbers, mechanics, and beauticians, among others. “We offer permanent placements. You can call us a recruitment firm.”

BookMyBai currently operates in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, and Kolkata. Over the last two years, it has provided services to over 10,000 households.

Typically, domestic workers in a city like Mumbai charge by the task, wherein each task, from dish-washing to dusting, has a specific rate for a particular locality. Often the maid’s day begins early and ends late, depending on the number of homes they visit.

For instance, 28-year-old Megha Pawar of Ghatkopar in central Mumbai baby-sits two toddlers at a household in her neighbourhood. She is paid Rs4,000 monthly for the four hours she spends with the kids every day.

“After the morning session with the kids, I go to other households in the afternoon where I prepare lunch at one place three times a week. I sweep and mop three other homes everyday,” Pawar said. “I spend close to 12 hours working and get around Rs20,000 every month.”

While BookMyBai does not stipulate minimum wages or working hours—those details are ironed out between the employer and the maids—the startup does help in negotiations. In fact, in his popular blog post, Sinhal mentioned his disgust for a celebrity who refused to pay her female maid the “minimum wages of Maharashtra.”

“After a lot of negotiation she finally agreed upon Rs10,000 per month (which was still on the lower side considering she has a 4-bhk home and the help needed to clean the home six times everyday! Yes, six times!” he wrote.

The platform helps as maids then don’t have to rely only on a word-of-mouth network to find jobs. ”There are a lot of maid bureaus and agencies—around 10,000 in India—but many have a scam-like set up and they charge a lot of money to the domestic helps,” Sinhal said.

The average salary of a worker associated with BookMyBai is anywhere between Rs5,000 and Rs10,000 a month (depending on the location), with the minimum wages starting at Rs3,000 for an hour’s job, according to Sinhal. It could go up to between Rs30,000 and Rs35,000. BookMyBai charges from its customers a service fee equivalent of a month’s salary.

Almost half of its clients are high-net worth individuals (HNIs), worth Rs25 crore or more by some definitions. These consumers are willing to pay more for English-speaking, passport-holding persons, Sinhal explained. Then there is the expat population—500 of BookMyBai’s clients fall in this group—who are relatively easy-going and have just one condition: English-speaking.

Such is the importance of these workers for Indian families that many employers have of late even begun cutting down on their own demands, Sinhal said. “Earlier people were more stringent, but now they have begun compromising,” he says. Clients have also been providing monthly holiday and a festival bonus—practices that are routine in India’s formal sectors—to their maids, he added.

Archaic perception

But, these workers are still far from being recognised as employees, experts say, and discriminatory practices are the norm. For instance, residential buildings often do not allow maids to use elevators, forcing them to climb up several floors by stairs. There is also a high level of mistrust involved between the employer and the maid as the former mostly plays down the latter’s services.

However, things may be changing for the better. Domestic worker unions and international organisations are pushing the Indian government to come out with a national policy for domestic helps, explained K R Shyam Sundar, a human resources professor at the Xavier School of Management (XLRI), Jamshedpur. “The most common demands have been physical security, minimum wages, and an identity like a normal employee would have,” he said.

In such a scenario, companies like BookMyBai could play a big role in smoothening things out by providing domestic workers a formal platform to find employment. The firm provides free accommodation and food to workers who migrate from the hinterlands to the cities until they find a home to work at. In cases of abuse, BookMyBai helps workers by terminating their employment and finding them a new job.

The demand in large cities is unprecedented. Sinhal says his firm had to stop its pilot project in Delhi recently as it doesn’t have the bandwidth to meet the demand.

Its revenues are evidence of the growing demand: In financial year 2018, the firm expects to earn Rs20 crore, up 400% over the previous year. Investors have pumped in over Rs1 crore in seed funding and the firm will soon raise more money through a fresh funding round.

Along with geographical expansion, Sinhal is betting big on technology as three new mobile-based products are in the works. The firm is launching an Uber-like app that will show the availability of domestic workers in a particular locality and connect them with employers, a fin-tech app that will make payments via bank account transfers easy for employers, and another referral app for workers to get job seekers on board and make a small commission in the process.

“We have a large tech play. Without technology this product can’t be scaled. This entire business is about sourcing; demand has never been a concern,” Sinhal says.

Commoditising the service

Meanwhile, BookMyBai has also received its share of flak.

In 2015, one of its advertisements said, “Diamonds are useless! Gift your wife a maid.” There was a huge backlash in the media against Sinhal as his firm was accused of commoditising a domestic help. Many had also taken offence to the firm using the word bai (woman in marathi) as its brand name. This negative publicity brought in a lot of business, though.

“It did get us eyeballs but it went on a different tangent all together,” Sinhal says.

He was asked if his recent blog post on celebrity clients was another move to grab eyeballs. “We have some 35 celebrity clients and at least 20 have had some issue with their domestic workers. After a big physical abuse incident, I decided that the line was crossed and I don’t need to take their tantrums,” Sinhal said. “It’s about ethics.”