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The Great Maid Paid Debate

November 20, 2011

Everyone’s favorite topic on the Yahoo! “Bombay Expats” group is how much they pay their domestic help. My friend Bronwyn and I sit in coffee shops and laugh at the ongoing debate every week. Our answer is always the same, pay them like a human being whom you value.

Recently, I got into a real argument with my flatmate about how much to pay our Maid and Cook for Diwali bonus.

Total disclaimer: she’s a lovely person and we usually get along. Some things are just…..Indianisms. And this firaang can’t understand it.

Market rate appears to dictate that a dedicated and loyal employee in your home receives about 1 month pay as their Diwali bonus- similar to the now-old-fashioned practice of Christmas bonuses. This is not a performance bonus per se, although if your maid is lazy and tends towards absenteeism, this is the time you might not be super-generous. But that aside, it is almost a guaranteed payment, and something that the maid likely counts on  when making her own financial plans.

One month salary. Potentially also a sari or some sweets.

Seems fair.

Let me also preface this with some professional international consultant lady guru of everything insight. I recently completed a project with a Mumbai-based real estate firm, that employs ~700 people. I had access to their complete payroll schedule, and got to know insideout how Indian employees get paid by a firm.

Your annual pay, or CTC (Cost To Company) is determined as some amount x, call it $100. Any potential bonuses or allowances are reduced from this (say, I have a $20 “Foreign National Allowance”) and some tax saving mechanisms are also deducted.

So say now you have a yearly base-pay at $80. This is not divided into 12 months, but 13. To allow for a guaranteed bonus at Diwali, regardless of company or individual performance. It’s like the Christmas savings clubs of yesteryear, although instead of turning in a coupon and $10 every month to save, your company is saving the $ for you out of every paycheck and giving it to you at festive season.

So when I heard that a maid or a cook would also receive about one month’s salary, it seemed reasonable. Clearly you consider this when you make the hiring decision. If you want to pay your maid x per month, you have to realize that in a year you actually pay 13x. And honestly, the monthly cost is low enough that this shouldn’t be an issue.

But it became an issue.

Not because my flatmate and I don’t have the money.

Not because our maids are lazy and don’t deserve it.

Not because we had already given them so many Diwali gifts that cash seemed absurd.

Not because of any real reason except that somehow, to my many people in Mumbai, these market rate is 500 Rupees bonus and they don’t deserve any more than that.


My maids make 4x that monthly. Won’t they be insulted to get a 25% Diwali bonus?

No no, I was assured.  At our family’s house in XYZ Indian city, where we have ten full time staff, we really only give a few hundred rupees.

I didn’t have words.

And so after some argument, we just disagreed. She’s incredibly kind to our maids and treats them well, so maybe bonuses are actually paid this way?  There’s some real reason why she feels this way, and if I understood it I would try to respect it. No number was fixed.

And then, Diwali came and I had to pay them.


Let’s review what 500 rupees even means, in India. This was my argument for how horrible it was to give anyone 500 rupees as a “bonus”

500 Rupees is: (in real terms, things I ACTUALLY spend 500 rupees on in one week)

10 American Dollars

3 taxi rides to work

1 lunch at Tasty Tangles

2 movie tickets

4 Cappuccinos at Costa Coffee

1 Martini (if you’re LUCKY)

1/7th of our monthly electricity bill (Dont even get me STARTED  on this one)

1 crappy bottle of wine, or 1/2 of an OK bottle of wine

1 month subscription to Skype “Call India” plan

2 GBs of internet connectivity

What’s worse is, the maids KNOW that we spend money left and right. They WITNESS all the shopping bags coming into the house (from my flatmate) and all the empty wine bottles (from me) and when they receive their pay they see the amount of cash in our wallets.

Am I wrong to be so bent out of shape about this? Am I just being Naïve? Somehow I cannot understand how consumption is OK but paying a human being a fair bonus is “just not done.”

In the end, I paid the delta between the “market-rate” and the “maeve-rate” myself. Got a bit pricey for me, but a tiny bit of the constant guilt I feel for having 2 maids  was assuaged, and I felt like a kind employer. And that worth way more than a few thousand rupees or a couple of cappuccinos.

As every Indian-based blogger has done, I’m going to link to Why I Left India (Again) because he talks about the uncomfortable moment where your maid knows how you spend your money, and realizes you value pizza more than her. I don’t agree with everything in this article, but it is a really beautifully written piece about how when we sit back and judge other people for poor behavior in the upper-class, we can internalize that entitlement and begin to resent the working class people around us for “being in the way” or “always begging.” The author has gotten a lot of heat for the way he wrote this piece, but I thought it was brave and at least very honest.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011 7:59 am

    fabulous post Maeve! the maid debates are never-ending.

    I also love how you’ve broken down what Rs 500 means to our non-Indian, or non-Bombay residing, or non-both friends. I did the same thing in this article I wrote awhile ago:

    What money means in Bombay, ha! It can buy access. It can practically buy love!
    Miss you, come home soon please. xox.

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