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An unequal people

Publication Date : 15-01-2014

 

The brutal death of 10-year-old Iram earlier this month, at the hands of her employer in a middle-class neighbourhood in Lahore, raises more issues than the brain can fathom: should one cry murder? Child abuse?

Perhaps lament the social menace of hiring children as domestic help?

Or should one look beyond Iram’s immediate narrative to the issue that lies at the heart of this and similar tragedies?

The issue of the vulnerability, powerlessness and, even in the best of circumstances, the relentlessly unequal status of 8.5 million Pakistanis — men, women and children — who according to some estimates represent the number presently employed as domestic help in households throughout Pakistan.

Some might argue that to focus exclusively on the disadvantages faced by domestic help is unfair. After all, in most cases domestic help is paid for its services and given its laziness, obstinacy and indeed wickedness, it does not deserve anything more.

Some, however, may cite the myriad issues faced by Pakistan as a developing country as the root causes of the fortunes of domestic help whilst still others may draw attention to the many benevolent employers who support their staff beyond any reasonable call of duty.

Granted there may be merit in these arguments, but they are faulty to the extent that they justify an inherent and immutable inequality in Pakistani society and endorse a system of employment of domestic help based entirely on employer discretion.

It is interesting to explore the possible reasons behind these justifications: are Pakistanis of the view that domestic help is somehow of a ‘different’ humanity, and, therefore, it is only appropriate that it be treated differently — never mind that it was precisely such thinking that formed the rationale for slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa and even the Holocaust?

Or are we perhaps driven purely by convenience and selfishness? Certainly the idea of a society in which one part of the population lives to serve another, especially if one belongs to the ‘other’, is too seductive to be abandoned! Worse still, however, is it our feudal mindset — our subconscious bifurcation of society into masters and servants — that not only allows us to accept a stratified society but also to actively preserve the status quo?

Whatever the precise reason, the fact remains that the present situation of domestic help is deeply entrenched in Pakistani society and meaningful change will only be possible if there is a shift in our collective consciousness.

In terms of modern literature on human rights, this shift may be characterised as making a transition from following a ‘charity-based approach’ towards the poor and underprivileged, to a ‘rights-based approach’.

Whilst the charity model emphasises the magnanimity of the rich, the rights-based approach emphasises the rights of the underprivileged. In the context of domestic help, this transition would entail a move away from a system run purely on employer discretion to one which recognises that domestic help have basic and uniform rights for which the employers are accountable.

The state, courts and citizens may each play a unique role in bringing about this change: citizens may not only act judiciously towards domestic help in their private spheres but also raise awareness in any forums they may be a part of. Such change will, however, remain variable and whilst it may change individual lives, it will not change the system.

Courts may play a larger role by expediting suits brought before them but the impact of this is also likely to remain limited due to the difficulty of domestic help bringing such suits.

The Supreme Court, may, of course take suo motu notice of the problem and devise guidelines for appropriate terms of employment but the primary onus lies with the state itself, which must assume primary responsibility for safeguarding the interests of domestic help.

The state may, for example, enact a specific law for the protection of the rights of domestic workers which outlines, in detail, the standard minimum rights and duties of domestic help and ensures that domestic help has access to offices specifically empowered for the purpose or to the police and courts, if necessary.

Given the danger of abuse of such a law, it should also mandate that domestic workers be registered with the police or other appropriate office, at the commencement of their employment and give notice in case of departure or dismissal.

Enacting a law, is, however, only a first step — necessary but not sufficient. The state must also sponsor public awareness campaigns regarding the issue, encourage the formation of support groups for domestic help and regulate any persons purporting to act as employment agents.

Such schemes sound naïve in the Pakistani context where rights often belong to the highest bidder. Perhaps it would help, therefore, to remember that the desire to support domestic help does not stem merely from a compassionate impulse but is essential for Pakistan’s continued progress, and indeed, its survival.

The words of the renowned economist and Pakistan’s former finance minister, Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq, are most pertinent in this regard.

According to him, holistic, meaningful and sustained development is only possible when a country expands the quality of life of all its people and not just the privileged. “People,” he maintained, “are both the means and ends of development … not convenient fodder for the materialistic machine.” Perhaps it is time Pakistan paid attention.

 

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