It started with a 35-year-old migrant house help who walked up to Powai-based Meenakshi Jain Gupta. A single mother of two kids, the woman cried, as she was in desperate need of a job.
Meenakshi was quick to quip, “We need people like you every day. Why then is finding a job so difficult for you?”
The woman told Meenakshi, “When we walk into a building, saying that we are in need of employment, the first instinct of the security guards is to say no. When we request them, they ask us what we can give them in return. Money or commission would still be easy to give, but most of the times, they ask us to go into a corner and give them other kinds of favours.”
The fact that these women were being sexually exploited to even get an opportunity to ask for work, let alone earn a living, appalled Meenakshi.
“While most of us are aware of the rising demand for house help, none of us is aware of the well-oiled machinery that these underprivileged women have to be a part of, to get connected to employers,” reveals Meenakshi.
She adds how her society members had found mattresses in the fire exits. While nobody had questioned why these mattresses were lying there for the longest time, now it all made sense.
Most security guards are migrants who live away from their families. Many times, seven to eight men live in a single room. She says, “The mechanism works conveniently for them. Either people weren’t aware of this or even if they were, nobody wanted to speak up. If one was getting a maid to work at their house, why would they be bothered about the silent exploitation of these poor, uneducated women?”
The revelation was a major shock, but the question that the migrant house help asked still lay unanswered.
“I need you, and you need me. But how do we meet?”
This answer came in the form of Helper4U.
What is Helper4U?
Helper4U began informally as a telephone directory of job-seekers that Meenakshi and her husband created from the slums near Powai for their own society.
But today, it is a full-fledged online platform, where not only women but also men can find jobs without paying a single penny to any intermediary or agent.
From domestic helps, ayahs, patient care, cooks, security guards, receptionists, the platform is helping provide livelihood opportunities for hundreds of underprivileged people.
A quirky fact about the initiative is that it was supposed to be called Maids4U. But when the husband-wife duo started connecting with the house help, they received requests for jobs for the sons, daughters and husbands of these women.
That’s how Maids4U turned into Helper4U.
How does it work?
The first step to starting the initiative was travelling to slums across Mumbai and explaining the poor men and women how it could help them in seeking jobs close to their places of residence.
This is followed by registering job-seekers on the platform; Aadhaar is used as the document to verify their details.
In addition, the domestic help is asked about their preferred area of work, their minimum salary expectations, their preferred location for work, etc.
How does a prospective employer avail of the service?
All you have to do is log on to their platform, click on the kind of help you require (maid, cook, patient care etc.), add your location, work timings and other criteria.
Once you have entered these details, you will get a list of job-seekers that match your requirements.
To avail the contact details, you have to pay a nominal subscription fee, starting at Rs 300.
The job-seeker will get notifications about the requirement via SMS and call, and the conversation is taken forward till the employer-employee requirements match.
Any peripheral service like criminal background verification, address verification, etc. is charged additionally.
This is one of the major challenges of the model, says Meenakshi, adding, “People in our country are unwilling to pay for information or data. But we are confident that the model will work in the long run.”
Today, their team has expanded from two to ten members, who work round-the-clock to stay in touch with job seekers, updating their employment status, salary expectations, and availability, year-on-year.
Offerings and Challenges
The returns for the social entrepreneurs though, is not much, considering that the ticket size is small, and they have a 10-member company to run.
When they started, Helper4U received a no-equity grant from Internet.org that helped them sustain. They are now looking at grants from prospective investors to expand the scope of the project.
Nonetheless, with their slowly but steadily growing customer base, they are confident to expand the project since it is convenient and cost-effective for customers.
“Sometimes people land up paying Rs 15,000-20,000 to an agent while trying to hire these services. This is the full-month salary of a domestic helper. And even if they don’t pay an agent, they cannot be sure that the agent won’t extort money from the domestic help as commission.”
The challenge for the company is to reach out to the house help: a person living in a slum who does not read the newspaper or hoardings, watch television or listen to the radio.
“The challenge is to make people from backgrounds like these aware of job opportunities. So we need to put feet on the ground by organising events, awareness drives, job melas etc., all of which require money. The investment will help us in ensuring that,” she says.
Another service that the company has started is to create resumes for people in the unorganised sectors.
“Often, many of them go to cyber cafes that charge them Rs 40 and do a shoddy job with their resumes. So resume-building is something we are experimenting with. Slowly, we will automate the process.”
In the last three years, the initiative has helped transform the lives of 4,500 people.
During this time, they have been able to identify the talents of several men and women who have moved from being domestic helpers to office attendants.
One such story is that of a young girl who worked as a maid, but when Meenakshi realised that she was a good communicator, she was moved to work as a receptionist at a restaurant.
The team is also trying to address the exploitation among domestic workers by making them aware of their rights.
“There are times when they are sick but have to drag themselves to work. Sometimes they take up a particular work at a household, and on the day when there is no scope for it, the employer may ask them to do something else. For e.g. ‘If there are no clothes to wash, why don’t you massage my feet?’ Now think about it in an organised setting: If you work at a certain designation, would you do your colleague’s work? Then why should you expect your house help to do so?”
To tackle this, the team advocates that employers and employees sign a written contract, where the details of the work, in-time, out-time, number of annual leaves, bonus, the process to apply for sick leaves and job roles are stipulated clearly and carefully.
“But it is upon the employee and the employer to enforce it,” she adds.
Meenakshi concludes, “When you hire a helper, treat them like any other professional. Give them the dignity, leaves and respect that you expect from your own boss. Treating them like their labour is bought will only increase the disparity in our society. Treat the people who make your life easier each passing day as human beings first. Everything else will fall in place.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)