By Sonya Fatah
Aug 5, 2013
Some years ago, during the summer time, I heard some loud rumblings from the street behind my Delhi flat. The sounds grew louder and gradually drew a Sunday audience to the back street, where an elderly neighbour dressed in his Sunday best - a see-thru vest and his undies - was spitting venom upon a street cleaner. The old man said a great many despicable things peppered with curses and foul language. The best treat he saved for the last: Do you know your Zaat? He yelled. Remember it. You will always stay down there.
One other memorable thing about that precious interaction was the street cleaner's response. He promptly damned the uncle back to hell, and calmly told him to go back to bed. I remember thinking: Good for you, dude.
Pakistan and India may have less things in common as the years roll out, and as their political and economic trajectories differ, but some things are not very different. Those of you who read about Hina Gilani - no, not the former Pakistani foreign minister, but another Punjabi belle with the same first name - will remember that the woman beat an underage employee/forced labourer /domestic worker, to death. Gilani's behaviour may be connected to her Zamindari background. But there's no shortage of similar atrocities carried out here in India with domestic and child workers, our children of a lesser God.
Are things changing? Pretty slowly, you'll agree.
According to the ILO there are some 52 million domestic workers worldwide. That number seems a little small to me considering I can count some 200 domestic workers in my little half-colony, which stretches over one square kilometre in the world's second most populous country. The India estimate of domestic workers lies in an absurd range depending on which interest group is quoting a figure: 2.5 million to 90 million. The figures are astoundingly misleading in Pakistan, too, with the Federal Bureau of Statistics posting a 2008-09 figure of 285,000.
Law, of course, is one part of the solution towards achieving a fairer environment for domestic workers. In India attempts at creating a framework have been in place as early as the mid 1950s. There has been at least one attempt every decade, and the 2008 domestic workers act stayed at draft stage.
Pakistan is a few steps behind though a private bill is expected to come before Parliament this year.
Luckily, there are international laws governing employers' behaviour. One that stipulates some protections to domestic workers is the International Labour Organisation’s Convention No. 189 that came into force in June 2011.
Conventions she mentions, you say. After all, both Pakistan and India have signed the ILO's Convention no. 29 on Forced Labour pretty early on; Pakistan in 1957, India in 1954. Pakistan has even signed the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. So, what?
Which brings me to the real challenge we face: mentality. The gruesome deaths, cigarette burns and rape stories shock us all and make for good newspaper and coffee table conversations. But hundreds of thousands of domestic workers have to take unacceptable forms of criticism from their employers, work seven-day weeks, and earn pitiable incomes. The most tiresome refrain is: I can't afford to pay a higher wage. This is particularly unpalatable when it comes from women who trot about with their Guccis and Prada hung awkwardly at mid-elbow, or those who spend lavishly on a bottle of single malt, or even a dinner at the mall food court. By comparison the few thousands doled out for a months' labour seems unacceptably low.
It's a condition that binds us across the border. True friendship?