24 Good Businesses 2012

Blue collar genie

Bodhicrew helps unemployed rural youth gain employment as domestic help in upmarket Delhi homes

Imake really good idli-sambhar,” beams Pritam Lakra as he bustles around the kitchen in a flat in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. A month ago, the 23-year-old couldn’t tell a spatula from a rolling pin; now, he can whip up over 40 dishes, from Punjabi to south Indian and Chinese to Italian. “My rotis don’t always turn out soft and round,” he admits sheepishly. “Back home, we eat mostly rice.”

“Home” is Darjeeling, where Lakra was an errand boy at a local grocery store. When the local church announced that a Delhi-based company was looking to train people as domestic help — cooks, chauffeurs and maids — he jumped at the opportunity. The company brought Lakra and others like him to Delhi, where he’s getting a crash course in the culinary arts. Once he’s deemed fit for employment, Bodhicrew will find him a job at one of the 200-odd households that are on its waiting list. He’s assured an income considerably higher than what he would have earned at Darjeeling and, more importantly, Bodhicrew will keep an eye to see he continues getting a fair deal here in Delhi. 

Bodhicrew is the brainchild of Manab Chakraborty and Vivek Kumar Kaushik, both veterans in the social enterprise field. While Chakraborty heads a microfinance company Mimo Finance and also runs an NGO, Partners in Prosperity, Kaushik is the founder of non-profit organisation, Edwell Society. The two met when Kaushik was overseeing a project on the ultra-poor and decided to work with this most impoverished lot. Their finding: the really poor in the interiors of the country migrate to urban centres in search of employment. But they don’t have employable skills and end up becoming part of the urban poor. “So, we decided to do something for the unorganised sector, zeroing in on the domestic help segment,” says Kaushik. 

Getting the crew

As a pilot, Kaushik and Chakraborty roped in 16 women from south Delhi slums and trained them for a month in various domestic chores. These women were then found jobs and based on the feedback from their employers, Bodhicrew developed its JustHelp programme. It was a good learning experience. “We saw the lack of transparency and decided to move into the entire value chain, right from the ethical sourcing of maids to their safe placement and fair wages,” explains Kaushik. 

The idea behind Bodhicrew is simple: the company provides a legitimate channel for safe migration of workers from villages. It will then help them develop employable skills, find appropriate work and help them gain legitimacy through police verifications and I-cards and so on. Kaushik and Chakraborty put in ₹5 lakh each from their savings and set up Bodhicrew in April 2011. In December, the company received₹30 lakh from venture capital firm Unitus Seed Fund, with which it has set up a training centre in Siliguri, West Bengal.

The centre sources potential employees from Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Cooch Behar districts, working closely with the local police, NGOs, gram panchayats and even church organisations. Now it plans to organise job fairs in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar, seeking maids, security guards and cooks. “The fairs will serve a dual purpose: they will give us visibility and when we speak in the presence of local government officers and the village head, people will take us seriously,” points
out Kaushik. 

A no-objection certificate from family members is a must before the company accepts any applications for maids in Delhi — all candidates also have to be above 18. All local authorities are kept in the loop, a necessary precaution since the area is infamous for human trafficking.

Initial training is at the Siliguri centre, in keeping with Bodhicrew’s JustHelp programme. Students spend 15 days learning basic literacy, basic maths including weights and measures, personal hygiene, safe operation of household equipment, house cleaning, basic cooking and laundry, among other things.At the end of the training, a Bodhicrew staff member accompanies the students to New Delhi. The training continues at the residential facility attached to Bodhicrew’s office until the candidate is found a job. 

Fair play

Bodhicrew-trained staff doesn’t come cheap: full-time maids get a starting salary of ₹6,000 and cooks get about ₹1,000 more. The company also charges one and a half month’s salary as a placement fee from the employer, with an annual renewal fee. Still, there are plenty of takers and currently over 200 households in Delhi are waiting for a Bodhicrew-trained maid or chauffeur. But Bodhicrew is clear that it isn’t running a maid factory — it refuses to bribe families to send their girls to work in Delhi (a common practice with most agencies), even though that limits the number of applications it receives. On the contrary, the company charges a fee of around ₹4,000 for the training, which it claims in equal instalments after the candidate starts working. In the past six months, it’s trained and placed more than 30 maids across Delhi and is currently working with a batch of four. 

When Rajita Kindo lost her job on a tea plantation, she took up whatever employment she got, including as a sweeper in a mall in Siliguri. She signed up with Bodhicrew in January and learnt to use a washing machine and microwave at the Siliguri training centre — gadgets she’d never seen before in her life. In mid-February she was placed with a south Delhi family. Her employer, Rukaiya Kanchwala, says there’s a “humane aspect” to dealing with Bodhicrew compared with agents — Kanchwala says she had the opportunity to meet the maids and find out if they wanted to work with her. 

Indeed, Bodhicrew has an extensive list of rules before placing domestic help. Thorough background checks are conducted on all potential employers and rules and rights are negotiated and clearly spelt out — for instance, employers cannot ask the maid to procure alcohol or narcotics; a staffer checks out the house to ensure there’s enough room for the maid. Monthly calls are made to check on the maid’s progress and the company encourages its “graduates” to stay in touch with each other, forming informal self-help support groups. Anyone who wants to return home is sent back, almost immediately, with a staffer and Bodhicrew bears the expense. “With such initiatives, we are slowly gaining the trust of villagers,” says Kaushik.

The company is now in talks with hotels and retailers to provide support staff like cleaners, security guards and drivers. By next year, it plans to extend its training to include specialised activities, like infant, elderly and disabled care, basic nursing etc., and over the next five years, it will establish sourcing and training base in Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Chhattisgarh. Meanwhile, Bodhicrew has tied up with NGOs Domestic Workers Forum and Mahila Kaamdar Manch, to train maids in Delhi. That’s actually turning out to be tougher than working with raw recruits. “These maids have a ‘we know everything’ attitude,” says Kaushik. Quite unlike the enthusiastic Lakra, who’s still struggling to get his rotis just right.