Non-local babysitters are the new requirement of working parents in Kashmir. But the arrangement through which the recruiting agencies bring these non-local domestic help in the valley often makes the entire process look very unconvincing.
Little Fatima has stopped eating and playing. Mama and Baba try to comfort her with all the toys, dresses, chocolates and ice creams. But all she needs is Fakira — her babysitter, whose term to stay at her home has come to an end.
The babysitter loved and took good care of Fatima. And in turn, she was treated as a family member by the little girl’s family. Despite all the comforts—a room to stay in, new clothes to wear, and eating whenever she felt like—she had to leave the family.
Fakira is a Bengali maid and a mother of two—who found her way to the valley when it became hard for her family to make ends meet back in Bengal. Even as her husband earns some money by picking up rags from the streets, sustaining a family was difficult.
In her hometown, her family’s financial condition is known to all. Such poverty-ridden families quite often fare on the radars of touts, who push them into different trades. Keeping eye on such needy families, Shah Consultancy from Srinagar’s Rainawari had sent its agent to Bengal.
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“He [agent] approached us and told me things would get better for me and my kids if I would go to Kashmir with him, and work there as a maid,” says Fakira, airing anguish. “They would bear all the expenses. It was the best deal for me.”
Soon after arriving in Kashmir, she was made to sign a contract with the consultancy: That she is meant to work in Kashmir for a year, and that she can’t see her family during that period.
Detailing her trysts with her recruiters, she says, she was clearly instructed that she cannot make calls home. “I miss my kids, but it’s probably a price that comes with being poor,” she says. “Luckily, the families I worked with would let me call my family and treated me well.”
Actively looking for a maid was a working woman from Kashmir who had just delivered a baby girl. The woman was Fatima’s mother, Zeeshan. “I had to join my office and there was too much work at home,” the young mother says. “So, we started looking for a maid. The safe bet was to involve an agency. They would take money in advance and the procedure was more secure than looking for a local maid.”
Zeeshan had earlier hired a maid at Shah Consultancy, who turned out to be a minor. So, she ‘exchanged’ her with Fakira.
“At that time,” she says, “the rate was Rs 50,000. We deposited the money at the consultancy. Moreover, they would also take one month salary of the maids. Then, they asked us to pay Rs 4,000 per month as her salary.”
But later, Zeeshan learned that the agency was not paying Fakira the whole amount, and would justify it by arguing that they were cutting the amounts for her travel expenses. It made her feel that perhaps the consultancy was exploiting maids.
“We were told not to let Fakira call home, but we would let her because we all have kids at home and it’s not easy to stay away from them,” Zeeshan, who would buy anything that Fakira would ask her, says.
The Bengali babysitter did her job well by taking good care of Fatima. Impressed with her, Zeeshan and her husband eventually decided to give the salary directly to Fakira. But it did not go well with the consultancy. They at once stopped Fakira from working there.
“They told us we would’ve to send her on our own then,” Zeeshan says. “We had no issues in doing that. We did. At least, we did not let her money go waste. They might be sending more than one maid together which must not cost them as much as they charge from them.”
Zeeshan’s own fact-finding makes her believe that many non-local women are lured to Kashmir through lies. “They’re told that they’re being taken for holidaying in Kashmir, but are made to work here,” she asserts, based on her interactions with Fakira — who made her understand how the whole arrangement works.
But the fact is, says owner of Shah Consultancy, a lot of investment goes in bringing non-local maids from other states to Kashmir.
“We don’t let them talk on phone because then they keep missing their families and it affects their work,” the owner, who does not want be recognised by his name, says. “A lot of money is being spent to bring them here. That’s why we keep the advance.”
Sometimes, he says, these non-local maids run away. “We ought to keep people to handle such crisis.” Presently, he says, the consultancy has recruited around 25 maids, above 18 years of age, in the valley.
In Kashmir, says Gowhar Malik who runs Al-Samad Agency, maids are mostly brought from Bengal and North Eastern states of India, mainly Assam.
“In Delhi or other states,” Malik says, “we’ve recruited agents who approach these people. They’re neither talented nor skilled. So, we ask them if they would be interested in working as maids in Kashmir.”
Before bringing them to the valley, the agencies orally set the terms and conditions with them. They are set to work for 11 months or a year.
Today, Malik says, hundreds of such agencies are active in Kashmir, which ‘supply’ maids to the Kashmiri families after entering into a proper agreement with them. Among other things, the families have to agree upon bearing the general expenses of the maids including their health expenses.
But the maids are paid a meagre amount of money.
“They get the money the families pay,” Malik says. “We keep the security deposit as we’ve to pay the people working for us in other states or for the travel expenses.”
Back to Zeeshan’s place, her little daughter Fatima is missing Fakira. “Her behaviour changes when we take Fakira’s name,” the mother says. “She just runs away.” Even Fakira keeps enquiring about Fatima’s well being by calling Zeeshan every now and then.
Although brought through unconvinced channel, these non-local maids and babysitters have already started creating new relations in the valley. And perhaps, that’s the only ‘saving grace’ in the entire process.
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