Pakistan celebrated its 70 years of independence on August 14, 2017. Like elsewhere in the world, here too the day is a public holiday, so I was very surprised to see the lady who helps with my housework turn up for work. When I asked her why she had come, because I was not expecting her, she told me that the other house she works at insisted, because what holiday?
We have been hearing stories of Pakistani elite incarcerating and torturing their household help. Even a TV anchor was accused of this. Right on cue everyone showed their immense shock and disgust every time such news came up. The pandemonium raised over tales of beatings of underage workers is rightly so.
But there is another side to this. I am talking about the people who consider themselves above such things. Who claim to treat their domestic staff with consideration. My point is, they don’t. The lady who insisted that her helper lady come and clean her house when the whole country was celebrating Independence Day is probably nice. She doesn’t beat or torture her staff. But she showed a complete disregard for any humane thought when she refused to give her a day off. The Pakistani flag outside her house was pretty big though. Clearly, Independence Day celebrations are only for the elite.
I know people who do not even allow domestic staff time off on Eid. At the very least they are required to be present during the first two days of Eid and then can take a day off. I myself had to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to convince my mother that not having someone make her tea for a couple of days is not going to be the end of the world.
I happened to be a part of a conversation among some people a few weeks ago, which actually left me gobsmacked. The topic under discussion was that their domestic staff want to rest for a couple of hours in the afternoon. The people who were having the discussion – completely unaware of their privilege – were peevishly waxing eloquent on how they themselves do not rest in the afternoon but work 14 hour days, but their household help does. I heard the conversation for a bit because it was quite beyond me to relate to such complete lack of understanding and empathy. Yes, you may work hard all day and not resting in the afternoon in your air-conditioned rooms is a choice you have made – you know, to ensure that kids go to the best school, the house that you have in the posh part of town and so that you can pay those drivers and cooks and house cleaners. My brief interjection that the domestic staff are not “pampered” when they take two hours off in the afternoon was obviously not received very well.
I am unable to relate to this kind of thinking. When you put the biggest Pakistani flag you can find outside your house, when you profess to be a patriot, do you consider how you are treating the other denizens of this country? Just because you are paying them does not entitle you to begrudge them little things like staying at home during a public holiday or resting in the afternoon. And mind you, I am talking about people who would find it absolutely unacceptable that staff are beaten. Some of them – though most certainly not most – treat them well in terms of hospital visits and even giving loans. But the point is that the bar is set so low that as long as we are not mistreating our household help, we think all else is fine. As if somehow not beating them gives us the license to begrudge them rest in the afternoon or days off on public holidays. As if hospital visits and loans absolve us from all other humanity.
Most of the domestic staff in this country is paid less than the minimum wage. They hardly get to see their families because most live away from them. We need to see their lack of privilege. We need to understand it. We need to be people who help our domestic staff, not be people with no empathy.