Twenty-five year old Lata works as a housemaid. On her morning beat she covers six households, starting her first job at 7.00 am. After washing utensils, sweeping, dusting, doing laundry and taking out trash, she takes home an income of around INR 10,000 each month – the equivalent of $150. She has no health plan, is entitled to no vacation, is not covered by minimum wage laws and receives no social security. This is the story of millions of women who work as domestic workers across India.

But nowadays, Lata is worried. She lives in a slum with her husband who drives a school bus and takes home a similar income. She has a three-year-old little girl ready to go to school and another on the way. Working as a maid is hard, and at five-months pregnant, Lata only has one more month of active employment before she goes to her village to give birth to and nurse her baby. This means the family has to survive on half the income at a time of considerable expenditure until Lata gets back to work. Lata is educated: she has done 12 years of schooling and by all standards of measurement is considered literate.

Radha has another story. She stopped going to school when she was 11 and has been working as house help since then. She was married off to a drunk, abusive husband who squandered her money. He recently died from alcohol poisoning, and Radha is grateful for that. She says now she can save the money she earns from working at up to seven homes a day to one day provide a decent education for her baby daughter.

Hard work for poverty wages

Be it Radha or Lata, the stories of women domestic workers in India are eerily similar. Two hours of hard labour each day often brings in less than $15 a month – much less in some areas. On top of that, there is no stability or standardization of income and no minimum wage.

State governments are finally realizing something needs to be done, and are setting – still too low – standards. A recent Rajasthan government ruling puts the rate for an entire day’s chores – eight hours of work that includes cooking, washing, baby-sitting and other work – at a minimum of just $85 a month.

Other than the few who find employment as full-time maids or nannies, work is only available in limited slots in the morning hours. For the rest of the day, these women try and look for anything that will give them additional income. While their earnings put them above the poverty line, it is still not enough to provide a comfortable existence and dignity of life. Worse, other than the often-bad conditions at home, they often suffer abuse at the hands of their employers.

According to unreleased data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census, 35% of urban Indian households qualify as poor. And as a Daily News and Analysis article states: “data posits the number of domestic workers in India at 2.52 million, up from 1.62 million in 1999-2000. However, NGO sources working with domestic workers say it is as high as 7 million.” What can we do to help these millions of people?

    India socio-economic and caste census 2011

Looking beyond education

Clearly education alone – in the traditional sense of literacy – is not going to cut it. Unemployment is an ongoing problem, so the most important question for most people is instead how they will earn money. Even if we ensure these women get some sort of a qualification, they will still be competing for jobs against a more privileged group – and most likely losing out.

Whether we like to admit it or not, there is little dignity of labour in India, and domestic workers and janitors are on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Once people receive an education, their goal is to climb that ladder: not take on a position that is given so little value. This means that sometimes, by giving people an education without thinking about what work they will do after, we are in fact taking away from them what little they could earn.

These women take on domestic work for the lack of any other skill that they can monetize. That’s why I believe the answer lies in vocational training. These women need to learn survival skills – understanding and processing information, making informed choices, managing finances, handling crisis situations – along with vocational skills such as sewing, driving, plumbing, welding and cooking, all of which are in demand.

Recently, one of my clients in the manufacturing sector told me: “It’s easy to find engineers, you get them a dime a dozen. But try finding me a good welder!” Another acquaintance in the construction industry is struggling to find good electricians and plumbers, for example.

Traditionally, these haven’t been the roles for women, but aren’t paradigms changing? If quality plumbers or electricians are so hard to find, why can’t we train women in these skills and plug the supply-demand gap?

According to the government of India, the country “faces a severe shortage of well-trained, skilled workers. It is estimated that only 2.3 % of the workforce in India has undergone formal skill training as compared to 68% in the UK, 75% in Germany, 52% in the USA, 80% in Japan and 96% in South Korea. Large sections of the educated workforce have little or no job skills, making them largely unemployable.” To counter this, in 2015 the National Skill Development Mission was launched to “align employer/industry demand and workforce productivity with trainees’ aspirations for sustainable livelihoods, by creating a framework for outcome-focused training.”

Recognizing the need, large corporations have also shifted focus to skills-based initiatives. Take the ICICI Foundation: it has been running the ICICI Academy for Skills for a few years now to provide vocational training to young people.

While organized and unorganized efforts to train people run in parallel, I believe a more comprehensive approach is needed. A microfinance-style model – where small communities gather together to support each other and are in turn supported by larger organizations – could be exactly what is needed. We need to tap into the grassroots. We need to tap into the people who are already connected and who understand each other. We need to spread learning through informal networks and push incentives that encourage people to formalize what they have learnt.

The ingredients are already there – women are social, they connect often and share knowledge; they have aptitude, ambition and need. All that is required is a trigger. Can India do it? That remains to be seen.

Note: The names in this article have been changed to protect the women.