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October 26, 2018
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Domestic work or slavery?

Opinion

October 26, 2018

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If women and children are the most vulnerable sections of our society, then poor children and women are extremely vulnerable and deprived.

Extreme poverty, deprivation, lack of education and economic opportunities force them to become a source of cheap labour and super exploitation. These conditions create an ideal situation for the rich, privilege and resourceful to exploit, abuse and repress the poor at their will. So it is not surprising at all that another case of torture and inhumane treatment of a child working as a maid has surfaced.

It is really unfortunate that the conditions of child domestic help only capture our attention when one who has been brutally beaten, abused and tortured comes forward to tell his/her horrifying ordeal. Usually, we ignore their presence in our glittering malls, posh boutiques and expensive restaurants where they accompany upper-middle-class families. We ignore the pain and suffering visible on their faces and feeble bodies while they babysit the children of the privileged.

We ignore the everyday cruelty and inhumane treatment of these children when they are forced to watch their employers enjoying delicious meals. Pity the nation that treats its poor and vulnerable so badly.

As a father of a young girl, it is really disturbing and very painful to even imagine what 11-year-old Kinza went through. Her ordeal at the house of an educated middle-class couple in Rawalpindi once again highlights the slave-like conditions of the hundreds of thousand children working as domestic help in Pakistan.

What Kinza and Tayyaba before her faced can only be compared with the conditions and treatment meted out to slaves, whose masters had the right to abuse and starve their slaves. Slaves had no rights as they were not considered humans but mere subjects to exploit in hard labour.

Some sections of our middle class have forced child domestic workers to live in conditions reminiscent of 18th or 19th century slaves. There are no other words in my vocabulary to explain the situation of child domestic servants than to declare it modern slavery.

We are doing with our poor children what the Romans did with their slaves and the American masters did with their black slaves. We need to change our medieval traditions and approaches while dealing with our most vulnerable.

Kinza’s medical report confirmed the torture and brutal treatment meted out to her. She was beaten with pipes, wires, belts and ropes. She was locked and starved. She was treated like a slave not by an illiterate master in a remote village or by a semi-educated family in a small town, but a well-educated middle-class couple in a posh area.

Why do educated people employ young children? Aren’t they aware that domestic work is hazardous and harmful for children? In my opinion, most of them are not ignorant of such effects. The problem is that most of them do not consider employing a young child as a domestic worker morally or legally wrong.

The reason is simple. We as a society consider child domestic work socially and culturally acceptable. We even consider it as something positive: a way to help the poor child and his/her family. While it is true that not everyone treats child labour brutally, they are still depriving children the innocence and joy of childhood.

These children are deprived of the right to education and a chance to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty. This is exploitation and violation of basic human rights even with good intentions.

Unfortunately, it has become fashionable for sections of the upper middle class and even for some middle-class families to have their child domestic help accompany them to public places. They do this without realising that they are displaying their class arrogance and superiority in a most crude manner.

Child labour in any form is not normal in a civilised society. We need to act now to protect our poor from all sorts of exploitation, abuse and harm. If child labour is not allowed in factories, brick kilns and other workplaces then how can it be allowed in homes? The Pakistani state needs to act now to fulfil its constitutional obligation to protect the most vulnerable and weak citizens of this country.

Sadly, countless children have been brutalised in the past. This will keep happening till a long-term policy and strategy to wipe out child labour is implemented.

The federal and provincial governments need to act urgently to regulate domestic work. They need to regulate the working and living conditions of domestic workers, with special attention to the needs of young domestic workers. This should include strict limits on hours of work, prohibition on night work, restrictions on work that is excessively demanding, and monitoring mechanisms on working and living conditions.

It is important to take legislative and policy action to end child labour and to set a minimum age for domestic workers, not lower than that established for workers generally.

Poor children have every right to get education and a decent life like the other children of this country. The state is responsible for providing them education and other constitutional rights.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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