By Umar Riaz
05 Jun 2015
Our society is in seemingly perpetual and never-ending crises. Fortunately it has a huge segment of nice, conscientious and resourceful citizens who rise to the occasion in averting these crises. These nice people have keen minds and warm hearts and genuinely yearn for betterment. These nice people organise walks and talks, give taxes and charity and are always found concerned – whether chatting in their cosy sittings rooms or proffering wisdom on social media.
But at the same time, these nice people have to grapple with problems that divert their attention. While they are busy playing saviors; nasty little creatures at homes give them headaches and nightmares. These creatures are ungrateful maids and rapacious domestic help. No matter how much looked after and taken care of, these maids are always complaining. No matter how nice their conditions are as compared to the warrens they were born in, they are never happy.
Poor nice people.
Psychologist George K. Simon aptly titled his book about manipulators playing victims as ‘In sheep’s clothing’. The worst forms of exploitations are often those which are taken for granted and accepted as a norm. The most despicable forms are those perpetrated and justified on the pretexts of sympathy, favor and generosity. The inhuman, illegal and immoral practice of employing underage girls as maids and domestic help is carrying on unabashedly right under our noses with least concern and guilt. It is a classic application of ‘barter trade’ with too many poor young girls with no money and too many families looking for voiceless servants.
A new maid is received in the family with the excitement of getting a new pet or a toy. However, pets are found endearing and looked after, and toys don’t feel anything. Mostly coming from the peripheral slums or rural hinterlands, these poor souls (the maids) are already a burden for the large family. The opportunity of employment brings twofold benefits; saving on their daily needs as well as some extra pennies. The hapless child is initially just a plaything in the household, laughed and scorned at due to her clumsiness and manners. But gradually she is integrated into servitude and ends up as the household slave. Over a period of time she is passed on from one house to other, as inheritance or dowry, as a gift or loan and finally discarded on the streets when of no use.
A maid cannot move, talk and eat without the consent of her masters
Napoleon famously declared: “Give me good mothers and I shall give you great nation.” We, however, are only interested in good maids. The unpleasant obligations of motherhood are now shouldered by maids who accompany the begum saab to shopping and restaurants, cinema and parties, and marriages and funerals.
The undignified and senseless spectacle of a harassed maid following a dignified and sensible lady in any shopping mall is a common sight but fails to stir any sense of abnormality. Even the abominable practice of a child taking care of a child is taken as a norm. Any mention of rights of maids or labour laws is scoffed at. These maids are kept – and fed – at such nice homes and even get to see television. The usual retort: what else do they want.
Slavery is considered to be the worst form of exploitation and discrimination and is rejected vehemently by all moral, legal and religious codes. Still this modern-day slavery is prevalent all around us without even the slightest remorse. A girl hired as a maid cannot move, talk and eat without the consent of her masters. She has no job description, no designated working hours, no privacy, no dignity and no control over her wages. Most of the time, she does not even know who gets her pay. She has less freedom then the bonded labour at brick kilns. At least the brick-kiln workers can laugh and cry at will and can actually think of running away. The maid is socially humiliated and physically assaulted. After losing the concepts of dignity and self respect at an early age, she is just reduced to a living being with no mind, no ambition and no emotions.
Sadly there is no realisation, no awareness, nor urgency and therefore no clear laws to deal with this so-called ‘benevolent slavery’ going on in the households all over the country. Even though the Constitution Pakistan prohibits slavery and child labour (Article 11) and guarantees equal protection before the law (Article 25).
There are labour laws dealing with wages, social security, industrial relations, bonded labour and old age benefits but these do not adequately cover household employment. Then there is the federal ‘Employment of Children Act 1991’ which deals only with ‘adolescents’ working at commercial establishments and workshops only. The much talked about child protection laws and bureau deal only with poor children (Punjab Destitute and neglected Children Act 2004) or ‘children at risk’ who are poor or homeless (KPK Children Protection Act 2010).
We cannot call ourselves civilised individually and collectively if we tolerate the practice of a human being in servitude of another human being and depriving young girls of their rights as equal citizens of this country. It is time to rise up and say no to this practice of inequality and indignity.
Umar Riaz is a Civil Servant and member of the Police Service of Pakistan. He studied Public Policy at Syracuse University as Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow (2010-11), presently serving as Superintendent of Police in Lahore