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Minimum Wage

December 21, 2013

The one little point that hasn’t been mentioned too much in the media, given all the discussions about the Devyani-Sangeeta-US circus, is that the maid’s so-called actual pay package. $573 per month was the figure that I read in the papers.

The US is crying foul that she was not given the minimum wage of $9.70 per hour, which at 40 hours per week should roughly translate to $1600 for a month. The original contract that was signed between employer and employee stipulates a salary of $4500 per month, according to the complaint filed. You can see that here

What Sangeeta was paid is roughly about $3.31 per hour, and she was asked to work longer than the hours stipulated.

By US standards, these are horribly low figures. When you take in factors like rent, insurance, food and other living expenses, one can barely make ends meet with a salary of $573 per month.

The Humans Rights group have strangely been silent on the ‘abuse’ meted out to Sangeeta so far. Diplomatic insults aside, there should have been groups hurling abuses and making their point heard as soon as this mess hit the press. Why are they silent? Because no one has heard from Sangeeta or her family? The only news that was leaked out today was in the Outlook group, which carried 3 lines from the mails the husband and daughter had sent to the US government. It has no date, no context.

I am not being callous towards Sangeeta. I’m sure she deserves justice.

But a part of me simply cannot get over the fact that Devyani agreed to pay a salary of $4500 to a maid. Devyani is an Indian, thereby quite familiar with the culture of servants. And yes, servants are abused in India. We read about people nearly killing their housekeepers here because quite often, they do not see them as human beings. They are expected to serve a family. Caste plays into this as well.

Back to the point, $4500 translates to INR 2,34,000 at roughly 52 bucks to a dollar (the rate of exchange during this whole saga). Over two lakhs a month for being a housekeeper? Sign me up!!! I know several people who are working in the IT or medical fields in the US and they earn about 5 grand a month. Was Devyani so stupid that she signed a statement like that, particularly if her own salary was equivalent to that amount as the reports state? She could have agreed to pay minimum wage on paper.

Was it arrogance or stupidity?

In the US, yes 5k does not take you too far, particularly if you have a fancy life. I don’t know what kind of a life the maid led. There is so little information from the other side of the story on this case.

Was Sangeeta actually surprised that she was asked to work more than the 8 hours a day? Seriously? After working as a housekeeper her and being exposed to the crazy people who employ live-in help? Did she really think that living in the US would mean Devyani would adhere to the 40-hours a week deadline? Did she even know about the 40 hours a week deadline?

One of the people I know employ live-in help, and they are considered quite generous people. A young girl works there, and she mostly has to help out an old lady. She doesn’t particularly get “days off” and the concept of that is quite alien to her. When she does take leave, she goes off for a couple of weeks to her hometown. She earns about 10 grand a month. She is a smart, savvy young girl who had to require the use of the internet due to certain reasons and she is quite shocked and amazed that Sangeeta is complaining even when she is earning close to 30 grand a month.

“She gets to live in the US, she gets to see all the fancy parties and she earns 30000 a month,” was her statement this morning. From the tone of her voice, I think she would have happily swapped places with Sangeeta.

To the ones who work as a maid, a cleaner or anything where they earn a mere 5k a month or so and have to maintain their entire family on that amount, 30K a month seems like a lot of money. Hell! It seems like a lot of money to me.

Perhaps Sangeeta’s is a story of a sweat shop. Except she was not promised untold amounts of money and cut shot. She was told that she would be paid about $500 a month and she was. Perhaps that amount seemed like a lot of money on the shores of India and she realised that she could get a lot more when she reached the US. Perhaps she was a simple girl taken in by the promises of a fancy land, fancy cars and “Amreeka”.

There are too many things fishy in this story. I’d love to hear Sangeeta’s side of the story and I’m sure some publication will pay a whole bunch of money for it.

But the fact remains – the insult of the arrest of an Indian diplomat. We’ve been quiet way too often in the past. This might be a smaller thing in the scheme of things but the government better man up and put up a fight.

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