What are we worth?
A pandemic can teach us about how our bodies work, but it should also change how we look at remuneration and human labour
I didn't read any of the saccharine Mother's Day tributes that clogged social media platforms a couple of weeks ago. I never do, because I find it distasteful to celebrate the presence of a person on one day, given that she spends most of her waking hours thinking about her children. I did call my mother and greet her because that was expected of me, but I call her regularly anyway. I think of her daily, worry about how she is coping with this pandemic on her own, and struggle to contain the annoyance that is also an integral part of every mother-child relationship.
My mother was a housewife for most of her life, for which she was paid nothing. She used to wake up at unearthly hours to prepare breakfast, then clean the apartment, go grocery shopping, and continue with cooking, raising her children, and putting out the hundred minor fires that break out when one is tasked with managing a household.
In contrast, none of the CEOs I have worked with over the past decades — all male, obviously, because corporate India is largely managed by semi-literate men with worthless MBAs — ever worked as hard as my mother on any day I saw them. The crises I saw them handle paled in comparison to what my mother dusted off effortlessly, week after unpaid week. What the CEOs were paid helped them buy multiple apartments and automobiles, while my mother had to make do with a pitiable sum that was handed to her every month.
How do we evaluate what we are paid for? How do HR departments and accounts managers come up with what they believe is an amount commensurate with a role? We are taught to embrace concepts like market rates, so we do, but everything that has happened in the wake of this pandemic shows that there are huge flaws in the system.
There are thousands of videos online now explaining to us why a virus that has devastated much of the planet has been great for the world's richest people, enhancing their net worth many times over even as millions of people struggle to find work that pays them a minimum wage. It is naïve to imagine that people who control these assets will let go of them easily, but even talk of a universal basic income has hit all kinds of roadblocks.
We have conveniently put aside the horror of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres without food or water. We have absolved ourselves of those deaths on railway tracks and forgiven our government because bigotry is now easier for a majority of us to accept than humanity. No one will be held accountable for those unnecessary deaths, so no one will ask questions about why people who build our cities aren't paid enough to be guaranteed a simple meal.
Part of why we struggle with money is cultural. Across India, our obsession with keeping up appearances cripples us, enabling dangerous rituals and practices to continue, triggering financial crises that destroy small households. We don't question them because we are constantly being coerced into accepting that everything about Indian culture is good. What happens, unfortunately, is that this prevents us from looking objectively at salaries and sexism in our homes and corporate spaces.
How do we quantify what we are worth? How do we justify that what we do for a living deserves enough for us to buy an apartment or a car? How do we consistently choose to pay people more for the institution they graduate from than their actual ability to perform a role effectively? Who writes these rules and where does it say that they cannot be broken by any organisation or individual willing to try?
It isn't ridiculous to hope that healthcare workers, labourers, waiters, teachers, and maids will someday be paid more than the pittance we allocate them from our overall budgets. It isn't stupid to hope that governments will someday recognise that what our mothers do at home is more valuable than what our fathers do at offices, and pay them for their undocumented, thankless labour. And it isn't wrong for us to use marketing gimmicks like Mother's Day to try and change not just how we look at our mothers, but mothers across India.
They deserve to be paid better, and what we do in the privacy of our homes may someday change how our HR departments, finance gurus, and the government of India look at them too.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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