Behind Closed Doors

Sep 26 2016 - The availability of cheap labour and low levels of educational/ economic opportunity, to say nothing of the insufficiency of jobs and the surfeit of both poverty and people, make it one of Pakistan’s unsurprising realities that any household that can afford to employ domestic staff does so. ‘Afford’ is a relative term — those who live in posh mansions might require a small army to keep the place in order; their more modestly placed middle-income compatriots also generally have the luxury of employing someone to help out.

Hajrah Mumtaz

Hajrah Mumtaz

For most tiers of society, there is always someone on the lower rung whose purse is thinner, whose need for an income is such that they must work at whatever comes their way. Simply put, Pakistani society is divided into people who employ others to work in their homes, and people who constitute domestic labour. Between them, regardless of the income level of the household, is inequality so entrenched that hardly ever is an argument made to bridge it.

Further, the issue receives little attention — when compared to the gross inequities faced by labour in, say, the industrial or agricultural sectors — because the bulk of these work relations occur behind closed doors, in the privacy of the home.

Even so, tales of exploitation and abuse occasionally filter out. And they are harrowing, in most cases having come under the glare of public attention only when the most appalling of crimes has been committed. A maid makes it to the headlines only when she has died or has been assaulted, or has suffered some act of extreme violence that calls for the services of either a hospital or the police. The less horrifying stories never make it to the public domain, and the exploitation continues across the board — there in plain sight, rarely remarked upon.

Naming and shaming domestic help on social media is a favourite pastime.

Restricting this argument to those employed in the domestic sphere, the ways in which exploitation occurs are myriad. Apart from extreme transgressions against rights as outlined here, there is routine abuse such as salaries below the minimum wage mandated by the state, denial of off-time or weekly holidays, unfair working conditions or emotional abuse — consider those who are subjected to verbal violence or indignities, or a child who has nothing cleaning up after one who has everything.

The ways in which the rights of the powerless can be abused is endless, and in urban Pakistan, amongst some of the relatively well-off, the internet and the social media seem to have provided a new method. On the surface, the idea seems well intentioned; scratch it even slightly though and the problems become immediately evident.

In Karachi, I came upon a forum several months ago after running a web search based on an overheard conversation. One woman mentioned that she was considering hiring a new maid, but the references provided by the young woman in question did not seem to add up. She should, said the others, post the prospective employee’s picture and details up on the forum which has members from across the city, and if anyone had employed this person before or knew her, they’d be able to help.

Intrigued, I started following this group, and have found other similar forums on the web and on smartphone platforms. The idea could have been for people to be able to share information about domestic workers or potential employees — who is efficient, who might know a part-time cook, who is letting their driver go and would like to find him a new post.

Problematically, though, the reverse is being put up: pictures, names and in some cases, photographs of the identity cards of domestic workers with whom group members say they have had a bad experience: this girl stole from me, that one lies, this man is unreliable — don’t hire them.

This takes inequality and the denial of rights to another level altogether, with a pool of prospective employers sharing amongst themselves information that may or may not be true, that the potential employees have no way of being privy to. Most importantly, it constitutes a sentencing without trial where the person accused of misdemeanour has no chance of defending themselves.

The group I joined has over 600 members in Karachi, a small number for a city of millions. Yet it is not insignificant either, for a scroll through the members’ details provides a good sampling of the wealthier sections of society in this city. And, obviously, there are countless groups and platforms that can be used.

What Pakistan needs reminding, then, is that the issue of domestic labour and the ways in which too many can be and are exploited needs to be brought out into the open. This is a sector that accounts for the livelihood of millions across the country; surely, improvement in their lot must be lobbied for, just as it is for daily-wage or industrial or agricultural workers.

The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2016

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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