“GIRLS with bachelor’s degrees are mopping floors for a salary as low as Rs5,000-6,000 per month,” says Ahsan Ali from Maid in Pakistan, an agency that provides domestic help to households in Karachi.

“We mostly service Defence, then Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society, followed by Nazimabad… all the posh areas,” he says, explaining that they have divided household chores into different categories. Cleaning, washing and ironing are one category, cooking and washing dishes belongs to another category whereas babysitting is a third. The wages of each category are different, depending on the skill level and fluency of the maid.

Also read: How can we protect contract and informal workers in Pakistan?

While the lowest monthly salary that a maid of Maid in Pakistan earns is Rs25,000, some earn as much as Rs30,000-33,000 if they are fluent in English. Such maids are hired by families in Defence for their children. To put this salary in context, a Montessori teacher with a diploma from the internationally recognised Association Montessori Internationale that costs upwards of Rs200,000 earns Rs23,000 while working in an upscale pre-school in Clifton.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate the market size of domestic labour in Pakistan is worth billions if it could be formalised by the private sector

The Defence area is serviced by Azam Basti, Akhtar Colony, Kashmir Colony and Qayyumabad. Girls from areas such as Azam Basti and Mehmoodabad are well-spoken in English.

They used to work in banks and insurance for Rs18,000-20,000 and are thus better-groomed and better-educated than the average masi.

Maid in Pakistan has given placements to about 600-650 maids in Karachi and has about 40,000 maids on the roster. “It’s a business worth billions,” says Mr Ali. We have an online presence but there must be 25-30 small agencies in Karachi alone that use old-fashioned marketing techniques such as passing out flyers in the vicinity.

Market size

There were 12 million urban households in 2017, as per the census. The Household Integrated Economic Survey places 43 per cent of the urban population in the fifth quintile with a monthly average income of about Rs60,000. Therefore, about 5m residences can afford a maid.

If each household was to have one maid earning the minimum wage of Rs17,500 per month, the market size for domestic labour for urban areas in Pakistan clocks in at the stupendous amount of Rs87.5 billion a month or over Rs1 trillion a year.

Obviously, a household earning Rs60,000 will not be spending nearly a third of its income on domestic help. More likely, the closest slum area will provide a more economical option (of around Rs2,000-5,000) since most middle-income households have at least one domestic worker in the house. Similarly, there are those who earn millions in a month for whom the minimum wage is less than the cost of a new pair of shoes and need to have a staff to maintain their homes.

These back-of-the-envelope calculations are illustrative of how big and vastly untapped the informal market of domestic help is in Pakistan. Statista places the value of the worldwide household cleaners market at $32.6bn in 2020, estimated to grow to $40.4bn by 2025 (not accounting for the coronavirus impact).

Defining workers

“We don’t call them masi, we call them helpers,” says Suniya Sadullah Khan, co-founder of the app Mauqa Online that provides domestic help at hourly rates in Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Mauqa started about 2.5 years ago and has roughly a hundred maids available for hire.

They recruit by going to communities in slum areas and refuse to hire anyone below the age of 18. Using an Uber-like app, they allow the domestic help to rate the customers and vice versa. Charging Rs300 an hour, depending on the service, they give the option of not going back to the house if the client is unpleasant.

Similarly, TAF Foundation (TAFF) is a non-governmental organisation that recruits from the suburbs of Karachi and slum areas. “We have girls who have earned master’s degrees but under the strict supervision of their brothers or fathers,” says TAFF CEO Dr Hina Hussain Kazmi. “They have no confidence or people skills. Through a programme of 15 weeks, we train them for housework as well as social and financial skills and call them housekeepers or house managers.”

TAFF ensure that its graduates earn a minimum wage of Rs17,500 though some, for example, the one working for the Italian consul general, earns upwards of Rs30,000. To date, TAFF has generated labour income of Rs80m.

Both TAFF and Mauqa work towards re-branding the humble masi and changing the culture of arbitrarily assigning work and hours to a more structured format. “TAFF mediates a contract between the employer and the housekeepers. The contract is valid for a year, has the job description, working hours and facilities provided,” says Dr Kazmi. Initially, there was resistance since the culture was such that “one day the girl would be asked to put oil in her employer’s hair, and the next day she would be asked to cook.” Employers have been known to fire workers when they refuse to deviate from the job description stated in the contract.

“Whether the girl is working for a few hours, half a day or the full day, she would earn the same,” says Ms Khan. “But because of the hourly rate, they feel less exploited as they earn for the number of hours worked and our customers have become efficient in terms of housecleaning rather than coming up with work just because the maid is around.”

Uplifting maids through laws is a long and arduous process, made more difficult by the country’s chequered history of poor implementation. “Nearly 85pc of the employers are abusive towards the girls, treating them like slaves,” says Mr Ali. Media reports abound of rape, murder and imprisonment of domestic help. However, if the private sector formalises the informal sector of domestic help, not only will it result in upliftand empowerment, it can also generate higher revenue in terms of labour hours.


The essential service of the rich

“Haye meri bechari beti,” said the Defence wali aunty as she watched in horror while her daughter mopped up the floor. “Why don’t you send the live-in driver to fetch the maid every day? Or better yet, tell her to shift into your storage room,” she advised.

In the first couple of weeks, belts were girdled and Defence wali aunties who had never picked up the plunger were determined to fight the good fight with all the jharoos, poochas and Scotch Brites at hand.

But days passed and squatting for thighs that could do yoga on mats but had not learned the art of using the humble poocha while walk-squatting became just too darn difficult. Demand for daily help coming in changed to domestic help living at home. For those for whom this was not an option, drivers were dispatched to keep the sparkling white bungalows spotless.

A battle may be raged in hospitals where doctors and nurses clad in personal protective equipment for armour have flowers air-dropped upon them in cities while nations stand in balconies to clap their thanks. But the humble masi, using a makeshift dupatta as a mask and caring not a whit about the coronavirus though being the most vulnerable to it, will battle her way through crowded public transport to provide the essential service of making sure her baji’s toilet remains streak-free.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 1st, 2020