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 went wild with accusations of racism against the US. Devyani Khobragade was strip-searched and said to be treated like a common criminal by the New York police department. This launched a diplomatic war between the US and India that is even now at the centre of talks. As a Dalit, this high-ranking official was an Indian success story, which claimed to have bade farewell to the rabid system of social stratification.
If the Washington Post is to be believed, Ms Khobragade was paying her nanny $ 1.32 per hour, which was drastically less than $ 9.75 as 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 plush sofas on the very same set. Then they ran the show on air. If there were any evidence that the estimated 8.5 million 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.
The majority of domestic help in Pakistan are women and an astounding 91 percent 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 often sees in malls and restaurants these children, debasingly called servants, caring for privileged children 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 at the same table. The excuse by employers carries that minor employees are better off than what they would have been and that charity excludes them from showing any gesture of equality.
Alternatively, because domestic help is so financially lacking, they have lower ethical standards, and hence should be pre-emptively treated like criminals: with suspicion and loathing. Many households 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 Chaudhry 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 domestic workers up if a theft occurred. Sadly, it made no attempt to record their hours or pay.
Enough legislative protections exist: the Employment of Children Act 1991, Minimum Wages Ordinance 1961 and the tabled Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Bill 2013. 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.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. She blogs at www.aishasarwari.wordpress.com and tweets @AishaFsarwari. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org