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December 27, 2018

When the helpers need help


December 27, 2018

The Punjab Assembly has finally put in place a law aimed at protecting the rights of domestic workers who have yet to be covered by any labour laws.

The Domestic Workers Bill 2018 also focuses on child domestic workers, making it a criminal offence to employ a child under the age of 15 as household help and a crime punishable by a tougher fine and possible imprisonment to employ a child under the age of 12. The law follows a Lahore High Court ruling that ordered legislation to be put in place to protect underage domestic workers.

The attention directed towards the plight of millions who toil in our homes, often as virtual slaves and with no checks on work hours or the kind of duties they must perform, is welcome. But we are also aware that implementation is likely to be extremely limited in this regard.

This has also been a partial problem in countries like Kenya where a strongly-worded law to protect domestic workers was put in place in 2011, specifying the minimum salary they could be paid in cities, towns or smaller areas. This law has been reinforced by the fact that domestic workers in Kenya, where thousands of people work as nannies, gardeners, maids, cooks or other similar positions, have been able to form a remarkably powerful union alongside those who work in similar professions. This is what we need in our country as well, even though the notion of an ‘underling’ standing up to his ‘master’ is almost alien in our society.

This is tragic. It creates the terrible gulf that exists between the rich and the poor, literally dividing them into zones that cannot be crossed. The deliberate weakening and breaking down of labour unions since the 1980s, and even before that, doesn’t help matters. This rings true for other professions as well and continues to be the case in many workplaces, with people being dismissed and having no means to defend themselves against actions taken unilaterally by employers.

It is also essential that the police and members of the local administration are made aware of their duty to protect domestic workers, who must be called “staff” and not servants under the new law. This is a difficult task.

The police, as we all know, tend to side with the powerful and the law has practically lost much of its meaning in our country. A remedy needs to be found. But that remedy doesn’t lie in legal action alone. It is the lack of education among domestic workers, especially women and girls; the poverty of their families enhanced by the lack of family planning; the willingness of the wealthy to take maximum advantage of the weak; and the widespread cultural notion that some citizens are somehow inferior to others based on their background or their parentage contributes to this situation.

In the first place, we need to campaign against the most evil offence of all: the exploitation of child workers. There are many child domestic workers employed in households, often to look after children barely a few years younger than themselves. It is easy to bully children sent to work by desperate parents, who are themselves seen as guilty of failing to protect them. They cannot be exonerated simply because they are poor.

Children also work for lower wages and can be forced to toil for more than 16 hours a day. The eight-hour restriction, laid down by the new law, would be an alien notion in many, perhaps most, homes in our country. So would the payment of overtime underlined by the law. Given that child workers have died in homes where they work or suffered brutal injury, rape, torture or severe violence, they need to be rescued on an urgent basis.

The means to achieve this cannot lie with just framing a law itself. This action by the Punjab Assembly needs to be backed by a mass awareness campaign, which reaches schools, mosques, workplaces, the media and all other places where opinions are formed. People need to be made aware of the toll that work takes on children, including their own maids, houseboys, gardeners or other domestic helpers.

Perhaps most crucially of all, they need to understand that these people, who are often looked down upon in society, are essentially their equals. They lack only in the fact that they haven’t been granted the same opportunity. Over the last few years, we have also seen a social media campaign ‘outing’ families that employ child workers, with pictures being uploaded on Facebook and other websites of maids standing and watching as a family eats at a restaurant.

The controversy surrounding these pictures has sometimes involved privacy issues. This is an important matter to consider. But as citizens all of us need to speak out when we see a child at work in a house and find ways to make our disapproval clear if we believe it isn’t the right thing to do.

It is only when laws are backed by social change and the manner in which we think is reset that any real societal change can come about. This is one of the hardest things to achieve. It often takes years, decades or even centuries. For instance, racism against African-Americans lives on in the US despite the movements and laws introduced in the 1960s.

Many among our ‘upper class’, if they were to give true answers to questions, would say that they believe the poor are somehow inferior in terms of intellect and in other terms, and therefore don’t deserve to be treated with equal respect or understanding. There are many comments flung around about dishonest maids or incompetent domestic workers. But few white-collar workers talk about corruption in the workplace or the wrongdoing that they commit when they place gas compressors to steal fuel or illegally tap into a power line.

It is this idea of difference that admittedly still exists in many societies, even though it has faded to a large extent in some parts of the developed world – notably in the Scandinavian countries where education and welfare have acted as an equalisers. It leads to the brutal mistreatment of people working in our homes.

There is a sense of triumph when employers find a worker who will accept a lower wage, perhaps out of desperation. There are, of course, exceptions as a significant number of people in the country treat domestic staff extremely well, take care of medical or family needs, and adopt a philanthropic approach that they see as suitable to ensure their welfare.

This is a positive factor. But we do need a law to protect the rights of domestic workers. However, the real challenge will be to enforce these laws so that they can reach the corridors, kitchens and rooms of homes – big and small – across the country and make household staff aware of what protections they have and what steps they can take to bring them into action.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]