Dear elites: Your servants have rights, treat them like humans

Published: January 21, 2014
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Once this bill is passed, we, the English-speaking, upper-crust, ‘Sahibs’ and ‘Madams’ should work towards increasing awareness about the rights of domestic workers.

As a result of my ancestors having achieved affluence, my early childhood years were relatively privileged – spent in an expansive house in Peshawar with my siblings, pets, pomp and delusions of grandeur.

We had many servants – someone to cook the meals, someone to bring the dishes to the table, someone to drive and maintain the cars, someone to wash the clothes, someone to sweep the floors, someone to feed the dogs, someone to trim the hedges and someone to guard the gate; all of whom collectively pandered to the nauseating imperial sensibilities that dominated the lifestyle of the rich.

Having the attention span of your run-of-the-mill spoilt youngest child, I never paid much attention to class differences in Pakistan. I lived in my own little world, comprising of Lego, Nintendo, Enid Blyton, older siblings, a doting mother and a distant father, with no worries of starvation, illiteracy or inadequate healthcare.

It was only recently that I began to open my eyes and question ‘the way things are done’ and heck, I realised that servants are people too!

The way we demand their unquestionable obedience is actually rather horrible. It isn’t the least bit uncommon to hear people expressing shock at servants demanding higher salaries, answering back to them, refusing to clean up dog poop, having the audacity to want to leave or using their ‘masters’ bathrooms (which is disgusting, as they aren’t humans). Some of my friends and family members are discomfited by the casual ease with which I interact with ‘the naukars’.

On a very optimistic note, this Monday, a lawmaker presented a landmark bill in the Senate, titled the Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Act 2013 following pressure from the United Nations. The bill addresses a number of concerns:

– Domestic workers can be no younger than 14 and no older than 60.

– The need for contractual agreements between employers and domestic workers, which will include specific terms and conditions related to hours and nature of work, and are to include healthcare/welfare measures.

– The worker shall be paid at least minimum wage and compensated extra for overtime work.

– Workers may work no more than 12 hours a day.

– They will be addressed as ‘domestic workers’ and not ‘servants’. You aren’t their ‘masters’, you’re their ‘employers’.

These subtle linguistic nuances should help, over time, hammer it into our heads that they are people and people have rights.

The Domestic Workers Act 2013 will surely help regulate the 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan who live at the arbitrary mercy of their employers as glorified slaves, without any written contract or specific legislative protection.

It should be kept in mind though, that Pakistan has a track record of passing bills without working towards their implementation. Considering the number of domestic workers that aren’t able to read and write, the cynic in me predicts that many employers will deliberately keep them in the dark.

Due to the devolution of power to provinces following the 18th amendment, this bill only applies to the Federal Capital Territory. However, once this bill is passed, all the provinces should ideally follow suit, provided that civil society activists care enough to take this cause up.

I personally think that the bill isn’t perfect and hasn’t covered all the areas of concern. I would have liked to see a clause which ensures that employers pay for the schooling of the children of domestic workers, a move which would have helped alleviate the education system of the nation as well as bridge the class divide. Regardless, it is most definitely a start and a good one at that.

Once this bill is passed, we, the English-speaking, upper-crust, Federal Capital Territory ‘Sahibs’ and ‘Begum Sahib’ should work towards increasing awareness about the rights of domestic workers.

The day this bill is passed by the senate, as I am very sure it will be, I will be the first to draft a contract for the workers present in my home, ensuring their empowerment and equal treatment as human beings with legal redress in case of excessively prevalent inhumane practices.

Please put away the shackles and whips. And for what it’s worth, it is not that hard to make your own tea every once in a while.

Ameer Gilani

Ameer Gilani

A sociology major, activist, and aspiring journalist working on educational reform who tweets @Ameeratron (twitter.com/Ameeratron)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.