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Modern Day Slavery

Modern Day Slavery

An estimated, 8.5 million domestic workers are paid a pittance to mollycoddle Pakistan’s elite and upper middle class. Services include, but are not limited to cooking, cleaning, guarding and driving. Working conditions, responsibilities, pay scale, vacations, allowances, health benefits and other potential points of contention – including the recent statewide increment in minimum wage – are fluid in the absence of a contract. Ultimately, when domestic workers outnumber opportunities, the all-powerful employer reigns supreme with millions subjected to a life of thankless servitude.

Recompense that permits survival in exchange for nearly every minute of a person’s life, without any route for upward social mobility, can only be viewed as modern day slavery. Establishing equity, in any workplace cannot be left to the whims of a penny-pinching employer. The design is ripe to exact injustice.

On the other side of the fence, commanding a battery of servants, or just a poor lone soul, indolent employers have every reason to maintain the status quo and will do everything to guard their choice to oppress domestic help and pay below minimum wage.

When domestic help asks for a raise, domestic help is ‘ungrateful’. When they ask for a leave, they are ‘perpetually absent’. When accruing work is assigned to them and they are unable to cope, they are worthy of abuse. In case of theft, domestic help is the first suspect.

Domestic help cannot sit amongst us, or eat amongst us. They must not use the plates, glasses and spoons we use. They must understand the distance between them and us, and do everything to maintain it.

Domestic help must not have outlandish ideas like opening up shops for raising their income. We ‘trained’ them over ‘X’ years. They ‘should be loyal. If this is how they choose to repay us, we should never have hired them at all. There is no such thing as good help. They are all the same.

All of the above is only a glimpse of the truth we have established suitable for domestic help, and if we are unable to see the ill in it, then perhaps we are part of the problem.

Backed by the International Labor Organization, the Pakistan Workers Federation established a new body May of this year, called Domestic Workers Union Pakistan (DWUP). DWUP’s mandate is to safeguard the rights of domestic help across Pakistan and it’s already beginning to make a difference in Punjab. Regardless of how well intentioned DWUP may be, or how commendable their ambition is, it’s too soon to assess the efficacy of a body that promises fair pay, health and education benefits, overtime work regulation and protection to millions across the nation.

Ishrat Ali, Secretary at the Ministry of Labour claimed in a recent BBC news report, that all domestic help will be registered and linked to social security within the next two years. Nosheen Abbasi, the President of Pakistan Workers Federation, who has represented labor unions in Pakistan for many years, is skeptical.

‘Unions only represent 5% of Pakistan’s population. Their influence on lawmakers, who are mostly feudal lords and industrialists, is almost negligible. It does not make sense to them to release more power to the people’. Mr. Abbasi said in a news report on BBC.

One doesn’t need to be an expert on labor to see the blatant injustice in the nominal, largely avoidable increment in minimum wage. It’s a travesty because help in homes, factories and farms across Pakistan are mostly paid hard cash. Labor doesn’t figure on a balance sheet. Most don’t even possess bank accounts. What they receive and spend cannot be tracked and it’s easy to exploit them when all they can be tracked to is a harmless petty cash fund.

I was in Bhurban recently and the security guard at the building where I stayed knocked on my door and asked for money one day. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t do this. But I have to now. I have no money.’ His was a family of eight: two parents, one spouse and four children. He was a heart patient and his monthly medicinal expense was 1500 rupees. In winters, his family huddled up in a room to conserve precious heat. He burnt 200 kilos of wood to cook food and to heat the one room they all occupied. Roughly, the wood cost him another 2,000 rupees a month, for five months of winter. His electricity bill with four energy saver bulbs amounted to 200 rupees a month. His children went to public school costing 30 rupees a month. One simply can’t afford private schooling at 400 rupees a month.

What did he earn as a security guard? 8,800 rupees a month. Minus 3,620, he was left with 5,180 to feed eight people. That is precisely 647.5 rupees, per person, per month. Do you think an individual can survive on that kind of money?

If the answer is no, help free the enslaved. Use your voice, and start at home

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