As we fight for labour rights, we need to recognise animals and their labour as well
nimals and the Earth have to be kept outside the zone of commodification. That is possible if they are seen as sacred. Something ‘sacred’ is not to be treated as a means to an end but as an end in itself. They, like us, partake in the divinity of creation. Creation tells us to care, nurture and protect one another. Let me explain this with an example.
A few years ago, outside Kasur city, I saw cows adorned with red and green cloth over their horns and around their necks. They moved freely. I had never seen such a thing in central Punjab. They were moving in a group of four.
There were two cows and two calves. Their coats were shiny and their eyes glistened.
They moved past the fruit and vegetable market stalls and various cart and shop owners offered them food.
The cows moved to the garbage dumpster and ate what they found useful.
Amazed at this sight, I asked a local fruit vendor, named Abdul Malik about them. Who owns them, I asked. He smiled and replied, “God.”
I had many questions for him. Malik informed me that no one could steal these cows because that would be a gunah - a crime against Nature and the community. I learned that these cows belonged to a nearby shrine, and no one would ever want to deliberately invite ill-fate upon themselves by stealing or harming them.
Shrines sometimes provide safe spaces for animals, but there is a need to see all life as sacred and therefore, give access to the ones seen as common, so they can survive and flourish too.
Commodifying lives and reserving care for some based on one’s biases makes survival a challenge.
The huskies living in houses in posh areas, the scared cats in Tollin’ton’s cages, the care-for cows of the shrines are some of the many categories of animals we have here. Of the many, the most neglected of the categories are the animals used for labour.
On a visit to my ancestral village in Sindh, I woke up with the sun and wondered about taking photos. There were no humans around at the break of dawn but three donkeys, one with a rope tied to both of its hind legs, another injured. The three were fishing for food in a local dumpster, visibly in pain. Upon inquiry, Hamid Memon, a distant relative, informed me: “they (donkeys) have been abandoned and now live off the dumpster. Some children throw rocks at them, so they come early in the morning in search of food when no one is there to bother them.” He assured me, “I will remove the rope around the donkey’s legs when I spot them next.”
Donkeys, like horses, have a different role in our lives and the economy than huskies and Persian cats. If the latter adorn the houses of the affluent, the former build them.
These animals and their owners work with garbage collectors across the city, collecting and sorting our waste. They carry goods, particularly building materials, across the city. They live a harsh life. No one treats them as sacred or sees their value. Billu’s labour and that of Akbar are hardly recognised, let alone rewarded. Both deserve fair working conditions, health care, a living wage and a pension.
Humans have used animals for labour for centuries. The relationship has taken various forms - from mutual cooperation and respect to abuse. Capitalism reduces relationships to mere use functions. A donkey, horse or bull, for example, that can no longer labour is a burden and is either set free or killed for its meat and skin. What it cannot be allowed to do is retire with dignity. Yet, I want to argue that just as workers are entitled to good working conditions, pensions and retirement, so are working animals.
On Lahore’s Gurumangat Road reside 12 donkeys who, along with their owners, transport building materials. One of the donkeys, who has worked at this site for the past two years, is Billu. Billu is around five-years-old and his owner, Akbar, is close to 60. The donkey was purchased two years back for Rs 14,000 from a market on the outskirts of Lahore.
Akbar wakes up at 7am and comes from somewhere near RA Bazaar in Cantonment to Gurumangat Road daily. Meanwhile, Billu stays on the side of the road on Gurumangat Road throughout the year; if one should pay attention, they will see him resting after a hard day’s labour.
Their work is contingent on contractors.
The two take building materials to construction sites across Lahore. The donkey owner can earn up to Rs 1,600, but it is not always the case. Whereas Billu can transport hundreds of kilos of sand and other building materials every day. The two eat economically. Billu is fed a diet of berseem mixed with chick-peas that costs Akbar Rs 250 a day. “I get a few rotis with some sabzi,” says Akbar. These cost him between Rs 200 and Rs 300 a day. If Billu is ill or unwell, Akbar takes him to a government veterinary centre in RA Bazaar where he receives free treatment.
Akbar says that he will sell or set Billu free if he can no longer work. The man has no retirement plan, no pension to look forward to either. He has a young family to care for. The two have little to live by, and the future is not too promising either.
Their labour is not recognised.
These animals and their owners work with garbage collectors across the city collecting and sorting our waste. They carry goods, particularly building materials, across the city: sand, bricks, cement, metal rods and much else. They live a harsh life. No one treats them as sacred or sees their value.
Billu’s labour and that of Akbar are hardly recognised, let alone rewarded. Both deserve fair working conditions, health care, a living wage and a pension.
As we fight for labour rights, we need to recognise animals and their labour as well.
Caring work is what makes us civilised. Therefore, we need to engage in such work for our environment, animals and fellow human beings. Animals have to be kept outside the realm of commodification.
The writer is the editor of Naked Punch Review: www.nakedpunch.com