In 2014, slavery still exists…

Published: June 15, 2014
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This pervasive exploitation and continuous injustice towards domestic workers does not get any attention – except when someone dies. PHOTO: RAHEEL LAKHANI

This pervasive exploitation and continuous injustice towards domestic workers does not get any attention – except when someone dies. PHOTO: RAHEEL LAKHANI This pervasive exploitation and continuous injustice towards domestic workers does not get any attention – except when someone dies. PHOTO: REUTERS

Children are beautiful, innocent, simple and sweet. Therefore, they are loved, cajoled, pampered and spoiled. They get special treatment, selected food, quality education, prompt healthcare and extra attention.

But this is not true for every child.

Not every child is considered beautiful, simple and pure.

Some children are born to live as children while others are born to live as slaves. These slave children are neglected and forgotten. They are beaten day in and day out, humiliated and assaulted. They are the waiters, the maids and the mechanics. They are the ones you take one glance at and then look away, because they look filthy. They are the children you ignore.

These modern day slaves remain unnoticed and unattended. This servitude is not lamented or condemned by the media or government. Amongst working children, those working at homes get the worst deal and between girls and boys, girls are most vulnerable to oppression. These girls often start working at tender ages and live their lives in misery and exploitation.

Iram, 10, was an orphan and one of five siblings. She was sent from a small village in Okara to work in a posh locality of Lahore. There, she was beaten for days with iron rods and gas pipes over a false allegation of theft. She succumbed to the torture and fainted after vomiting blood. When her oppressors brought her to the hospital, she was already dead. However, the family responsible for her murder was more concerned about the upcoming marriage in their house than the fact that they had brutally killed an innocent child.

Fizza, 15, was working for an educated family in Defence, Lahore. She started working at the age of nine with her mother and later on, she was left there, all alone. Her landlord made her an object of punishment and penance. She was beaten on a routine basis and was denied medical treatment, even when her bones and joints were broken. She used to be tied by her wrists and ankles by a tight rope, as punishment. She was unconscious when they finally brought her to the hospital, and remained in a coma for two days. After that, her lungs stopped working and her brain ruptured, causing her death.

Azra, 17, had been working since her childhood. At her last employment, she was sexually assaulted by the son of her landlord. Later, when the family found about the rape, fearing that she might report it against their son, she was strangulated and killed by the landlord’s family.

Muneeza was luckier than the former three, as she was rescued in time, due to intervention from the media and the police. She was beaten repeatedly but had the good sense to report to her family; otherwise, she would most likely have met the same fate.

There are startling similarities amongst these cases. The girls are usually minors, tortured by educated but insensitive families. They are not provided any medical aid, even when they are exceptionally sick, and are made to work in the worst weather conditions.

They are never considered humans. There rights are often ignored. And those who torture them feel that they are invincible. All the families, in the aforementioned cases, showed little remorse after their crimes were unearthed. And their audacity is such that they are currently fighting cases in courts, still negating their guilt.

Like Iram, Fizza and Muneeza, countless others face the same treatment and meet the same fate ultimately. This pervasive exploitation and continuous injustice towards domestic workers does not get any attention – except when someone dies. And even then, nothing substantial happens. News flashes on the idiot box for a few days, the hype is created, ratings are made, advertisements are received, attention begins to dwindle and after a week or so, no one hears about these cases. It is business as usual.

Institutional checks on exploitation of labour are otherwise ineffective, but for the domestic help, they are non-existent. The enactment of the Child Protection Act and establishment of child protection bureaus do provide a mechanism for rehabilitation of homeless children but under-age domestic servants have no protection. Similarly, the Employment of Children Act 1991 bars children from working at certain establishments that require physical labour, but that too does not address domestic workers.

There is practically no age limit for children to work as domestic helps. Even an infant can be employed as a servant. There is no safeguard of pay or working hours. Maids and servants are at the sweet will and mercy of their owners, who treat them like pre-civil war slaves. Mostly, domestic workers come from poor families – have no homes, and no place to run to. The ruthlessness of ‘demand and supply’ and an utter lack of decent employment opportunities or lack of free education, works against them and they are left with no choice but to continue with this serfdom.

It is about time that this modern day slavery is ended. Now is the time to rise against cruelty and exploitation; one that takes place right under our nose every single day. The time has come to restore the dignity of these children and make them useful citizens.

There should be new legislation on minimum wage, age limit and working conditions for domestic workers. Employment of females under 18 should be completely banned and even those employed after they are off-age should be protected. And this law should be implemented, not framed and put aside as a face saver.

These children are perishing before our eyes. If we won’t stand up to own and protect them, then who will?

Umar Riaz

Umar Riaz

A civil servant and member of the Police Service of Pakistan, who has studied Public Policy at Maxwell School Syracuse University, USA as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow (2010-11), presently serving as Superintendent of Police in Lahore. He tweets as @umarriaz40 (twitter.com/umarriaz40)

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