The COVID-19 shutdown has negatively impacted across the sections of the Society in general, and the daily-wagers and Maasis in particular. Despite the province was placed under lockdown, groups of female workers could be seen on the way to work, who are called by Begum Sahebas (the wives of the employers) to return to work or they would lose the job and the pay.
By Nazeer Ahmed Arijo
This is all about the plight of maids or the “Maasis” – a word used for women domestic workers, employed by the affluent and the middle class families in this country. They clean, cook, care for children, look after elderly family members, and perform other works for their employers.
Despite their tough duty, they are among the most exploited and abused workers in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region. They are overworking but under-paid, and often subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. In urban areas, early in the morning, swarms of Maasis comprising the young and the old can be seen walking briskly on their way to work ; in the evening, they come trudging along clumsily due to physical fatigue, with shoppers in their hands carrying left-over food given by the employers.
The COVID-19 shutdown has negatively impacted across the sections of the Society in general, and the daily-wagers and Maasis in particular.
Recently, a private TV channel highlighted the case of female domestic workers’ vulnerability in terms of losing the job as well as the paltry pay. Despite the province was placed under lockdown, groups of female workers could be seen standing in different areas in Karachi.
The reporter had asked one of such groups as to why they were going to work. They responded that they were called by Begum Sahebas (the wives of the employers) to return to work, and failing to, they would lose the job and the pay. The interviewees expressed in clear terms that they can’t afford getting out of work. Basically, hailing from humble backgrounds, compelled by chronic poverty, landlessness, droughts and floods, interest-based-borrowing and subsequent circular debt, or vicious circle of debt by landlords; they migrate to big cities in search of livelihoods. Both male and women work in order to keep home fire burning. Male members start doing every odd job available whereas females being uneducated and unskilled start doing their job as a part–time, full-time and live-in-workers.
Scores of those women work in two to three households doing already agreed duty like only cleaning, or dish-washing or doing the laundry.
It has been noted that because of impoverishment either young girls are allowed to be domestic workers or after the mothers having become old, take their young daughters to help them finish the assigned workload. New kids on the block- newcomers to particular place or sphere of activity –are at greater risk of becoming victim of sexual abuse.
Despite working from dawn to dusk, they are leading a miserable life. Their children can be seen in tattered clothes, malnourished and diseased. They are deprived of motherhood as their mothers are away throughout the day. The present as well as the future of new generations of Maasis seems bleak and unpromising. Those engaged in domestic service live in squalid one –room quarters and huts erected on plots.
Usually, they prefer to building jughees/chapra on plots with no boundary wall, which could accommodate two to three families in order to minimize share of rent to be given, necessitated by their insufficient income. They thus are living without proper washrooms and toilets. They have lived for generations like this. And there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
The modern-day masters/employers calling those workers in the wake of ongoing pandemic throws light on the murky environment, exploitation and vulnerability that characterizes domestic work in Pakistan. Calling the workers in question is also challenging the writ of the government of the day, which has prioritized – stay at home – as a measure to stop the spread of contagious corona virus. I have deliberately used the term ‘the masters and the slaves’ because only a colonial mind-set stoops so low to exploit those workers given understanding of the latter’s being financially dependent on the odd job as only source of survival.
The book “Silent Voices, Untold Stories -Women Domestic Workers in Pakistan and their Struggle for Empowerment” by Ayesha Shahid, offers a diversified, academic and research-based approach on the topic as well as issues and difficulties faced by women domestic workers in Pakistan. The distinguished writer has convincingly explained that “Pakistan is among those developing countries where most households employ women domestic workers. Domestic service is an unregulated, unorganized, and undervalued form of employment. Domestic workers are not included in the definition of the “worker” in labor legislation. There is no law to regulate the relationship between employer and the domestic workers in Pakistan, thus a domestic worker does not exist as person in labor law. As a result, domestic workers have no legal rights to a weekly rest-day, maternity leave and public-holidays. There is no specific complaint procedure available under labor law through which a domestic worker facing abuse could lodge a complaint. Domestic workers do not enjoy the same rights as the industrial workers, technical workers, sales persons and others in the formal sector employment sector do, who are given protection under the labor laws of the country.
In Pakistan there are various social classes and there is much disparity among these classes. The unequal treatment faced by women domestic workers is an outcome of class discrimination and an integral part of patriarchal structures of the society. An obvious reason is that the upper class does not want their workers to be aware of their rights or to be protected by law, because they fear that awareness about their rights and legal cover might encourage their uprising against the rich and the powerful. Secondly, it is a matter of conflict of interest because if this sector is regularized and legal protection is given to these workers, the upper class will not be able to use their services by paying meager salaries nor the domestic workers would be at the disposal of employers who could throw them out of jobs whenever they want”.
There is this network of disadvantages at play pushing them into bondage as well as hanging them out to dry. It is to be noted that the history of domestic workers being sexually harassed and abused by their recruiters dates back to the dark days of slavery.
Taking the advantage of the deprived or the already disadvantaged is unethical, inhuman act and unconstitutional engagement-to be discarded the sooner, is the better.
In a patriarchal society women are seen as an object of satisfying baser biological urges boiling in a man. Women walk-through “lustful looks and smiles” at a bus stop, at a bookshop, at a cloth market, and at every public space etc. and this is the reason why, not only harassment at work place but violence and domestic abuse against the daughters of Eve is common in our country, with very little institutional engagement for the redressing of issues elaborated above .Due to toothless laws, we have seen surge in cases of sexual harassment of maids.
We are an Islamic society. Neither Islamic teachings nor the constitution of Pakistan allow oppressive environment and discrimination against women in every context. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also calls on states to adopt prohibitions on sex discrimination. It requires state parties to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct, to eliminate prejudice and practices that are based on the inferiority of women, to provide women with rights equal to those of men in fields of employment and family benefits, and to recognize the difficulties facing rural women in particular.
Pakistan being a signatory to the CEDAW is obliged to provide protection to domestic workers in terms of their working conditions, remuneration etc. The writer of the above mentioned book has convincingly concluded that domestic service is only source of survival for millions, abolishing it is not advisable. Ayesha Shahid has forwarded the idea of conducting a countrywide survey and subsequently giving them legal cover by the state and patronage by the society given their vital role in our households. I second her conclusion as a sustainable solution. The survey under the head of ‘National Domestic Service (NDS) and registration of those rendering vital service to be put in place for the relief and much-needed reforms, in accordance with the constitution of Pakistan and the CEDAW. Justice demands that this domestic service be urgently registered, regulated, and legal cover and entitlement to the old age benefits should be prioritized.
(The writer is an educationist and a freelance contributor. He can be reached through email: [email protected])