Low Cost Labour?

India's economy has been cruising for the past several years with the ITES sector on overdrive all due to the abundant availability of trained 'low cost labour'. And India's demographic deficit, i.e. its burgeoning population of under 35s is supposed to drive its economic growth for many years into the future. But is that really going to happen? To my mind, the day the myth of this so-called low cost labour explodes, there will be a panic-stricken exodus of MNCs, and no number of ready-mix IITs and IIMs or added seats in graduate courses are going to be enough to stem the rot resulting from India's completely inadequate primary education infrastructure.

The problems are already evident when one goes to recruit from or for any institute. I had posted some time earlier about my horrifying brush with the naked truth when I went on the interview panel of a 2nd rung Bschool in Delhi. And speak to anyone about the kind of domestic help they employ and it becomes even more obvious. They can't read or write in many cases, are ignorant of the most basic ways to conduct themselves, don't understand time management or commitments and end up causing all kinds of problems which then cost much more to solve.

We have a normal-sized staff for an upper middle-class Indian household. One live-in maid, one day maid, two drivers and a gardener. Our travails began with the first driver we ever employed - gormless, as he was called by A and me ( and not fondly, at that). Every morning, it was a toss-up to see whether he'd manage to make it here before A had to leave for work. Invariably 2-3 days out of 5, he'd be late and A would have driven himself to work. The days when he did make it, he'd still be too late to clean the car so it always carted a year and a half's worth of dust on its roof. The man would almost never shave and I think baths were an unknown quantity, which was tough in the summer and monsoon, especially after I got pregnant. He didn't know and couldn;t remember any routes, so each time you had him drive anywhere, you had to be on the 'qui-vive', pointing out turns and stops. He took one day's leave for a relative's wedding and returned after 5 days, claiming 'they' had asked him to stay on, employers who pay salary be damned. And when we asked him to go after 6 months in which he'd probably taken 80 days of leave, he asked why.

After him, we had another specimen nicknamed 'face' as his name was Surat, whoch was supposed to combine cooking skills with driving. Face had many issues, not least among which was that he objected to being directed a) by a woman; and b) by people younger than him, though he had no problems taking his salary from A and me, half of which duo was female. His cooking skills were miniscule and consisted of chucking the same masalas in varying order at the wok and hoping for the best. His driving was even more varied - he would race across every pothole on the road, leaving all bones jarred into new places on the bosy and drive as slow as a snail on smooth-as-Hema-Malini's-cheek roads. Once we were driving back from A's dental surgery appointment. I asked Face if he knew the way back home. An emphatic yes later, he promptly took the wrong turn. Then, we told him he had to make a right turn on a particular road - he parked so far ahead of the traffic signal that we couldn't see if it was red or green. And lastly, he was on the verge of taking another wrong straight when we told him he had to make a left. He took a sharp 90 degree turn to the left in the face of oncoming traffic at full-speed, because 'we had told him'.

We had many unnerving experiences with maids as well. Now we have the latest edition of gormless living with us, while I wait hopefully for her predecessor, a real and rare gem, to come back from the village. This one can't remember any instruction for the space of more than a nano-second. Every day, every task is like a new discovery for her. If asked to fetch anything, she usually can't find it, even if she has put it away herself and then turns up with any random article. The other day, I asked her to fish out the steel colander for draining noodles - "The steel vessel with the many holes" was exactly the terminology used. The first thing handed to me was the shallow aluminium vessel in which we cook rice in the pressure cooker. The next was a multi-divider thali which is used for Chubbocks' meals. There are days when my daughter has apparently sauntered to the park wearing a frock on top of jeans, or even in her night pajamas, because this lady who sees my daughter every day has not figured out what clothes are worn together as yet. Each and every instruction has to be repeated thrice and then I have to remember it and check to see whether it has been carried out, which 90% of the time it hasn't. Her presence in my house at this time may prove to be a blessing in disguise because I've been having low blood pressure and she sure does her best to raise it every single day!

The army of contractors, builders, carpenters, electricians and plumbers is even worse - most of them are half-trained but think they are experts, proving that 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. We constantly have a problem of 'air-lock' in one of the cisterns, leading to ghost-like moaning and groaning SFX and an inability to flush. The plumber's inevitable answer: "Change the ball-cock". He claims this piece of equipment wears out in a year's time at best. Which is funny because in 6 years in this house we haven't changed any of the other ball-cocks. The toilet seat has some funny mechanism which ensures that unless you drop down on the seat at a precisely measured angle and degree of force, the seat will slide right out of the clamps and fall on the floor, sometimes bringing you down with it. It's been fun being a pregnant lady with an ever-shrinking bladder around this one!

Contractors rarely stick to the committed deadlines and even more rarely do they commit to a budget so you are always likely to be surprised by the amount you end up spending on what you thought was a simple repair. We've had to change all the locks in the house twice, because each time, the carpenters did a funny job which either meant the doors and the locks had to be aligned at a precise angle involving much straining of muscle and bodily lifting of said doors, or the doors would jam once shut. Our front door has two locks installed for safety - but we can use only one at a time, because for one you have to push the door forward and for another you have to push it back!

The builders who constructed the house were trained in experimental, new-wave geometry - not a single doorway actually consists of straight or parallel lines. Most of the walls meet the ceilings at different angles. The floors all slope inwards so if any water starts flowing in, it will helpfully collect indoors, thus flooding the house rather than running off into the various verandahs and garden. All the pipes in the house have had to be broken down and replaced as the workmen figured once they were done with the cement, stone and other such material that the leftovers should be stuffed down the nearest water pipe - why would they be needed to actually take water out of the house, right? The drainage holes on the terrace are vertical, not horizontal - which means water only starts to flow out of the terrace once a certain height of water has built up, and God forbid that you have one leaf or piece of fluff blocking the grating; then you're just asking to be flooded, aren't you? For some reason, the pipes leading down from the terrace open out onto the first floor balcony, so each time there is a washing down or downpour on the terrace, the first floor balcony is awash in mud and muck.

Despite the so-called low cost that we pay this array of domestic help, the real cost in terms of management time spent supervising and planning the work ourselves, to ensure it gets done properly, the time spent in chasing after the workmen to ensure timely delivery and the cost of constantly repeating the processes and the repairs adds up to much more. In fact, this low cost labour is much more expensive than the high-cost labour of developed countries who come to work with a plan, a schedule and a budget and stick to all three, thus freeing up your mindspace for more important things. If India does not address the problem of providing a good basic education to its citizens fast, it's going to crash and burn!

Comments

Suki said…
You echo what I think every time I go to pay my fees. I, a student in a top-notch government university, pay Rs 75 a month. All is good. Except that I would not be able to access this subsidised education without an expensive schooling in the first place!
The caretaker's kids, who live in our garage, are in class 6, 7 and 8 respectively at a govt-aided school. They're supposed to be dividing poloynomials, and they don't even know their tables. And yet they are better off than no schooling at all.

Instead of spending crores and crores where the money is already there(or pocketed by middlemen in a lot of places in my uni), the same money could be utilised for scholarships, and to decently pay schoolteachers.
Kiran said…
Hmmm....I stay in the US and would always envy my friends/relatives in India who had many maids/drivers...Many times after dinner, I would be so beat from the day that I would say "I wish we had a bai to come clear the dishes away" etc..But I guess it depends on the quality of help that you have...My Sasu ma is insanely lucky - has four devoted maids who take care of her house like its their own!!
vipul said…
Wow i loved this analysis, i always get flustered by state of things just because they have to be cheap. The point is you being disciplined and plan pro person doesn't help in india because you know everyday there will be some stupid error to attend to. Thumbs up to you. I can only hope that ppl start thinking this way otherwise our nation is just best at ignorance and living life just because you are alive not because you want to live.
bird's eye view said…
Suki - yes, honestly I think we'd be better off with fewer IITs and more good, solid primary and secondary schools in the villages and even the cities. It's scary to see how these people lead their lives - my maid has studied till class 8 but can't read the numbers on a phone!

Kiran - oh yes, i remember when we lived abroad, how much we missed basic manual help for the small stuff - but dealing with untrained minds day after day is really stressful. Your MIL is really lucky - or she's trained and treated her maids very well...

Vipul - thanks. I agree, it just doesn't help to try and be a planned and precise person in India because no one else will meet you half way and you just end up frustrated and having wasted a lot of time

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