Finding domestic workers a chair to sit on

When 2013 was ending, Obama effigies were burned in India, there were demonstrations by Indian Americans outside the New York consulate where Devyani Khobragade was deputy consul general for India and the Indian press was wild with accusation of racism by the Americans. Devyani Khobragade was strip searched and said to be treated like a common criminal by the NYPD. This had launched a diplomatic war between the US and India that is only now settling. As a Dalit, this high ranking official was an Indian success story that had claimed to have bid farewell to the rabid system of social stratification.

If the Washington Post is to be believed, Ms. Khobragade was paying her nanny USD 1.32 per hour which was drastically less than USD 9.75 required by the US government. The nanny also claimed to have been overworked to about 100 hours a week.

One is reminded of Malcom X’s words on the house negro. So many of us, Indians and Pakistanis cut from the same cloth, having faced an imperial power and other persecutions eventually all become unjust to those less privileged because we “dress better, eat better and live in a better house.”

When this week, GEO TV on its show GEO TEZ invited a domestic worker to the show, they decided by some logic to have her sit on the hard floor, while other guests sat on plushed up sofas on the very same set. Then they ran the show on air.

If there was any evidence that the estimated 8.5 million of domestic workers were making their way up in Pakistan, this one snapshot defined the ceiling they hit. Conversely, people who are advocates of terrorism and murder are invited to prime time shows with boundless respect by the Pakistani media. The valour we are ready to bestow on the committee representing the Taliban is telling of what yardstick we use to measure value. Even more telling was the absence of outrage on this undignified act by GEO TV from the self-professed enlightened community: No apology followed. None was demanded, of course.

Majority of the domestic help in Pakistan are women and an astounding 91% have been sexually harassed or abused by their employers according to the Alliance against Sexual Harassment (AASHA). The tolerance for this practice is shockingly high by both men and women “masters.” A large number of the domestic help are minors — we had the case of Shazia Masih in 2010 where this 12 year old was raped, tortured and murdered. The perpetrator was not brought to justice.

Minors are paid crumbs compared to the work that is demanded from them. One would often see in malls and restaurants these children, debasingly called servants; caring for privileged kids but being removed from the family by physical space – They are good enough to be trusted with their children but not good enough to be fed the same food or sat on the same table. The excuse carries that they are better than what they would have been.

Alternatively, because domestic help are so financially lacking, they have lower ethical standards, and hence should be pre-emptively treated like criminals: with suspicion and loathing. Many households would treat Pakistani help differently and their Filipino nannies differently. The reason: The latter have legal protection and more importantly are symbolically elite.

The government has been guilty of perpetrating this antipathy for domestic help. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan launched, right after his appointment the Islamabad specific Household Servant Registration drive. Yes, servants. For this, NADRA officials went door-to-door in leafy streets asking people to “help NADRA secure your home, city and country.” The premise again being that domestic workers are potential thieves and crooks and their benevolent employers must safeguard themselves by registering their domestic workers. From the information this form sought, it was clear that it was only enough to be able to round them up if a theft occurred. Sadly it made no attempt to record their hours or pay.

Enough legislative protections exist: Employment of Children Act 1991; Minimum Wage Ordinance 1961 and the tabled Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Act 2013. The enforcement is necessary and requires a cultural shift towards domestic workers as people without whom the economy would have no wheels.

As a start, let us raise them to sit on chairs.

This Oped was published in Daily Times on March 9, 2014

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