There is one activity in India that large numbers of poor, illiterate and semi-literate urban women are engaged in almost all their waking hours: the chores of cleaning and housekeeping. But as visible as this labour is, the question of calculating a living wage for it is not often on people's minds.

How much should I pay her? I asked myself this question a couple of years ago, when I was settling into Bangalore. A notified national minimum wage would have been a useful reference, but at that time I wasn’t sure what it was, or even how to find it. I decided to come up with a number myself instead using a reasonable calculus. Checking around with the leader of a domestic workers' union and perusing local municipal pronouncements on city sweeper wages, I concluded that 3000 rupees a month would be a living wage (not a minimum wage, but a living wage) for domestic work, 8 hours a day. Working backwards from there, it’s Rs.13 per hour or around Rs.750 for a 2-hour-per-day job, per month, with Sundays either off or with extra-pay. That seemed simple enough, and I knew I could afford it.

But offering this salary wasn’t as simple as I hoped. Families often use their neighbours or local relatives to track down candidates; to me this was especially important since the interviews are usually conducted by the woman of the house, and I couldn't avail of that option as my wife then worked overseas. The neighbour in my case was a senior housewife and a true mistress of her own home. In my just-furnished living room, even as she introduced me to the candidate, I knew she wasn’t going to consent lightly to an offer of Rs.750 to the maid. We asked Lakshmi - the candidate - how much she expected, and she asked for 500.00. My neighbour promptly took charge and negotiated her down to Rs.350 and signed her up.

I began to murmur something about 500 being better, but as I had anticipated, that was put down with a “don’t do that. These people should always be paid only so much. If you pay more, then they will all start asking for more..”. Having been conditioned to defer to senior women on domestic issues, I appeared locked in to the negotiated rate as well. There was little that Lakshmi could do, since she knew someone else would step up to take up the job if she didn’t.

Away from my neighbour's glare, however, I decided to play my cards differently. A week after Lakshmi began work, I drew up a calculation on my white-board and told the semi-literate lady quite flatly that that the city paid so much to its own cleaners, and based on this I was going to pay her a living wage too, and here was my calculation. I also let her know that I was not doing this out of any goodness, but merely as an employer who wanted to follow ‘government guidelines’. I don’t think I really got through to her; she nodded nonetheless, and that was good enough for me. A few months went by. The neighbour’s family and ours became quite friendly. Inevitably, they came to know that I was paying over twice the initial offer. But I wasn’t asked to explain and didn’t make an effort to offer one.

My wife and I then thought it fit to subsidize partial medical expenses for Lakshmi, and schooling expenses for her only daughter. Sarala was usually playing in the sand with other girls, and it was more than a year since she and her mother migrated to Bangalore from Tamilnadu. Following her husband’s suicide, Lakshmi’s in-laws had taken over her their rundown property, held her son back to raise him and thrown out mother and daughter. The twosome drifted to Bangalore along with other migrant labourers. Lakshmi became a construction day-labourer and a part-time domestic worker. After a few months of my urging, she agreed to admit her daughter to a local Tamil medium school, with my family footing the bill. Note my surprise that there are Tamil medium schools in Bangalore with syllabus and support from the government of Karnataka!

In return for this approach to her livelihood, I laid out the ground rules early on. Most domestic workers in urban areas in India suffer from instabilities of all kinds. ‘Sudden leave of absence’ is the most common symptom of this. Knowing the scenario quite well, I told Lakshmi my terms - paid leave, unpaid leave, time of work, and simple procedures to keep us informed. Standard stuff, very similar to the way it is in the organized sector. You get paid for the value you bring to the table, and if you respect your time and the money you make, you’ll respect your employers’ time and money as well.

You guessed right! It took my family several months of instructions to bring Lakshmi around to respect her own time and the money she was being paid for her work. She would often absent herself without calling us (despite some money having been set aside for telephone calls). But over time she understood our terms better, and started following those rules. She still misplaces our phone numbers or does not take care to keep them handy when she travels, but these instances have become fewer over time.

All of this has been a learning experience for me too.

First, contrary to trends in opinion amongst employers, help for domestic work remains important. Despite recent signs of greater mechanization in urban households, large numbers of working couples and home-runners continue to rely on domestic workers. When a worker stops abruptly, employers make diligent efforts to find a replacement. Usually, in fact, a new worker will be found quickly. Employers (often women themselves) may abuse workers for coming late, going on bursts of leave, and their poor quality of work. Despite this, they don't get rid of their dependence on workers - a clear sign of their reliance on domestic help.

Second, minimum wage guidelines are hopelessly out of sync with real costs. Much after Lakshmi began working in our home, I learned that the federal minimum wage in India is Rs.52 per day; this works out to around Rs.6.50 per hour. This kind of wage simply will not make the cut for cities, if it is the only wage paid in total per day. There is also little information available for adjustments related to traveling/walking to work, limited medical coverage/reimbursement and those sort of things that real wages must reflect. On balance, my living wage numbers were nearly double the minimum wage.

Third, most domestic workers are used to living and working in a climate of low self-esteem and abuse. They can purchase little for what they get in return for their hard labour. They will not easily be tricked into believing their work is very valuable and they must follow ‘rules’. Even when better wages are paid, there are other communal and caste equations that hinder their asserting themselves in a professional manner. If anything, some low-paid domestic workers have found ways to punish employers in return by deliberately causing untimely difficulties that would otherwise be clearly avoidable. Lakshmi has told me about how her counterparts in other houses would at times deliberately leave clothes dirty, or leave a tap running to run the water tank dry!

Four, it has taken some time for Lakshmi to understand that we really have no special interest in her situation – we would do this for any domestic worker we had retained. Several times, she asked for more work and volunteered to do additional chores, even though that meant she would return home late and have less time for her daughter. On several occasions, I had to ask her to check her time, work efficiently and leave. The expectations of an organized sector work culture do not easily transfer to the informal sector, merely because one pays a decent wage.

But there are even larger difficulties. The benefits Lakshmi that receives from my family do not automatically transfer to her next employer. In the current relationship, if Lakshmi were to leave tomorrow, or we packed our bags to leave for a distant part of town, what would happen to coverage for her medical expenses and her daughter's education? This is a shaky foundation, but I knew that going in. On the other hand, if domestic workers in a region were collectively organized, employers in the region could pay monthly contributions (over and above wages) to a pooled fund. The fund could cover workers's expenses. This is a more robust system than coverage through individual employer-worker relationships. What's more, the relationship between employers and workers will then be a less personal and more formal one.

On balance, though, things have worked better for both employer and employee. Lakshmi has had her daughter in school for the second year in a row, and has seen a higher regular income for herself, allowing her to purchase small things for her home. From time to time, she has relied on her employers for banking, as well as for petty-cash loans. On occasion, her daughter gets limited advice and nudging from my spouse about her studies and future. Our finances are no worse off merely because we paid Lakshmi a better wage. In return, we've received a more cordial, reliable and timely commitment to domestic work than we would have otherwise.

The absence of legal sanction and a system for administration of benefits may not stop some citizens from paying living wages to Lakshmi and her class of workers. But ultimately, modern India has to enshrine living wage support in legislation and institutions. On that note, it is encouraging that Karnataka and Maharashtra have taken the lead. What remains to be seen is when and how benefits will accrue to domestic workers.