Moving to Gurgaon more than a decade ago was also the first time I’d ever lived in a housing society. I grew up in a house. After a bunch of years of rental apartment living in my 20’s, I was back again in a suburban house. It’s the American Dream.
In Gurgaon, we found a fairly well known complex and I set out to find schools, figure out where to buy good vegetables and hired staff. Within the first year, I was invited to a meeting to discuss maid salaries. It turned out to be a meeting to discuss anti-poaching of cleaners within the community. I remember that in those days, ‘jhadu-pocha’ (sweeping/mopping) maids in our complex charged Rs. 600/month. For this they did a speed cleaning of the house floors, balconies and bathrooms which took roughly two hours. Then it was onto the next house and the next and finally their own teeny room to take care of their families.
One of the meeting attendees complained bitterly about the staffing situation.
“They’ll change jobs for just for an extra 100 rupees.”
Hello, I thought to myself. “100/600 rupees is roughly….”
Being a forthright person, I quickly jumped in.
“16%. That’s a pretty big number. Our husbands would change jobs for 16%.”
The appalled silence let me know that I had overstepped my bounds. I learned an important lesson that day. An Indian woman never, ever equates hubby’s career with the hired help. Suffice to say I made few friends in the complex.
Last week, something in the papers caught my eye. Some 64, 000+ tech employees in hardware, software and design had brought a class action suit against Google Inc., Intel Corp., Adobe Systems Inc and Apple Inc., for $3 billion in damages. Imagine my surprise when I realized that in the same time frame (2005 – 2009), CEO’s like Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt engaged in the same types of discussions as homemakers in far away India. As these Silicon Valley honchos couldn’t easily meet in the clubhouse, plenty of e-mails, firing of poaching recruiters accrued. All the availability of ‘hard data’ led to the companies, settling a civil suit by the justice department in 2010, without admitting wrongdoing. This settlement allowed harmed tech workers to proceed on a suit for lost compensation. Just in case, the suit did go to trial, high priced legal talent for the companies, spent their time trying to ensure that evidence showing companies and their principal players without their powder and blusher on. They also wanted to make inadmissible exactly what expensive makeup and even countries the companies and their top executives could afford to buy.
There was no doubt among pundits that the case would not go to trial as weeks of media scrutiny over case reveals would be damaging to companies concerned. On April 24th the suit died a quiet and expected death, with a settlement for $300 million according to those in the know. As the settlement is a small fraction again of the lawsuit, theories abound as to why the settlement occurred. The most likely explanation is that Class Action lawyers who bring on these cases for future payoff when the settlement is won were not willing to go further. The plaintiffs by filing the case had already harmed their careers and had nothing more to lose.
This may be a moral victory but the math again proves that this amount is peanuts for not only the companies, but each engineer will get roughly a few thousand dollars each in a place where a teeny house costs upwards of a million. I’ll assume the plaintiffs and their lawyers who made the settlement know way more about the situation then I do. However, this case highlights that no matter how much a businessman has or where he lives, he will figure out a way to underpay workers. Make no mistake, the Gurgaon housewives too are CEO’s of their homes and have every incentive to keep their maid’s monthly salary at the same price as the cost of a pizza lunch. It’s no different with Silicon Valley companies and I’m sure no different with major Indian companies particularly as they have no fear of a lawsuit they cannot bury.
I’m a huge fan with quite an iAssortment of Apple products and would literally be lost without Google. However, what does this say for us middle-class worker bees? It clearly says that we have no choice but to be lifelong learners, even smarter workers and superior communicators. As we’ll be constantly undercut, we need to stay ahead with our skills to be able to marshal a little more in salary and benefits. With salaries as insignificant compared to what owners of companies make, it seems we’re really not too different from our maids after all.
This is a riveting drama, and I highly recommend you read more. Here’s a start.
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