COMMENT: Not without my servant, sir! — Saleem H Ali
Food, which should be life’s finest pleasure, becomes the biggest source of anxiety for students at all levels. The undergraduate students, who can easily avail of dining-hall food, often have such a discriminating palate that they end up spending most of their monthly allowance on restaurant food
It is that time of the year again when many elite families in Pakistan and all over the developing world are deciding where to send their children for higher studies. Scholarship decisions are anxiously awaited and traffic at foreign embassies begins to pick up as student visa applications are filled with much consternation.
Perhaps the least appreciated cause for anxiety, which many of Pakistan’s privileged families should consider, is how their kids will survive without servants in their dorms and apartments! How many tears will be shed as their pampered progeny adjust to waking up without tea in bed or the driver waiting to salute them off to school?
Unfortunately, the basic survival skills are so absent in most students from the higher social strata that many fall prey to anxiety disorders and depression. As most Western universities require first-year students to share rooms, adjustment in such matters becomes even more consequential. You better know how to clean your room and know your boundaries if you are to adjust favourably with a roommate who might have very different expectations. Shared bathrooms are another source of tremendous anxiety for many South Asian students who often acquire the reputation of showering at 3 am to avoid being sighted in their birthday suit.
At least the undergraduates who share bathrooms do not have to clean them afterwards. The graduate students find themselves in another predicament. While they may have the privacy of an apartment, they have to now clean the dreaded toilet themselves and also fix minor plumbing problems to save money. No longer can they afford to nickel and dime skilled labour, such as a plumber, who could easily charge a minimum of hundred dollars to clear a drain.
Food, which should be life’s finest pleasure, becomes the biggest source of anxiety for students at all levels. The undergraduate students, who can easily avail of dining-hall food, often have such a discriminating palate that they end up spending most of their monthly allowance on restaurant food. The apartment dwellers burn their way through many omelettes before resorting to canned or vacuum-packed entrees from the nearest “desi” store. Pizzas become a daily diet for many leading to a resounding plump surprise for Ammi and Abu, next time their darling arrives back home.
Comical as this all may seem, there is sombre reality embedded in the trials and tribulations of an elite student adjusting in the West and without domestic labour. Nor are students alone culpable in this matter. Professionals at notable institutions such as the United Nations or the World Bank and at embassies are known for trying to bring their servants with them at nominal wages to New York and Washington.
In the United States, many diplomatic missions have insisted on personal servant visas which have been sadly abused in various ways. The State Department issued 1,957 of these “personal servant” visas last year, mostly to diplomats from Asia and Africa. While these servants are supposed to be under contract and paid at fair market wages — most are simply not. The problem is not confined to diplomats from developing countries since many wealthy Americans have also been caught employing illegal Mexican immigrants as maids and giving them substandard wages. The major difference is that while the American perpetrators can be prosecuted under US law, the diplomats can claim immunity. The most that can be done is for them to be deported.
The price of labour has been the most persistent strain of inequality all over the world. The essential tasks of our daily living are often undervalued and have resulted in tremendous class conflicts. At some level, we should all be trained in basic domestic skills and value them just as much as our degrees and professional accomplishments. There is no doubt that some forms of labour will be compensated more than others but the difference in compensation should not be such that transitioning from one profession to another becomes impossible.
The matter in Pakistan’s context is also accentuated along gender lines. Professional women from Pakistan who migrate to Western countries are expected by our patriarchal society to take on domestic duties as well as professional tasks. Ideally, we need to rethink the conventional 50-hour per person workweek for a single-earning family and perhaps split the task between spouses to allow for sharing of both professional and domestic duties. This is beginning to happen with flexible working schedules and part-time bargaining units and unions to allow for such flexibility.
As for the ayas and khansamas in Pakistan, we clearly need to keep them employed but the government needs to institute a minimum wage for these hard-working members of our labour force. There should also be opportunities for educational development and a professionalisation of domestic duties that give the servants’ children a choice for alternative career trajectories if they so choose. Being served by others is fine so long as we are willing to meet the most fundamental needs of those who serve.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com