In Joseph O’ Neill’s new novel set in Dubai, the American protagonist describes the brown migrant workers that make the city go round “as color coded ants swarming all over a construction site”.
Even less seemingly human are the women, the armies of workers doing domestic work that ensures that all habitations inhabited by the wealthy are clean and pristine.
The domestic workers in O’Neill’s novel are invisible; they inhabit the deeper recesses of the high rise building that he lives in, when he tries to talk to them, they run and retreat in fear. To be noticed bears the risk of being fired, and that for them is the end of the world.
He feels bad for them, these brown others, sentenced to such an existence, and like a good and guilt ridden American he donates a portion of his paycheck to the Human Rights Watch.
In life beyond the novel, the Human Rights Watch this week issued a report about just the people that so preoccupied the privileged American protagonist of O’Neill’s novel.
Their latest report “I Already Bought You” is a detailing of just how hapless the lives of domestic workers imported to the United Arab Emirates really are.
Beyond the day-long drudgery of cooking, cleaning, caring for children and other such chores are woeful tales of passports confiscated upon arrival, wages unpaid for months, sexual and physical abuse, confinement, and denial of adequate food and clothing.
In several cases, the report finds women are taken from labour exporting countries like Sri Lanka, the Philippines and others are trafficked to the Gulf under false pretenses to be forced into labour for months and years.
The misery doesn’t end there.
The very vocabulary that is used to describe these women shows how their status before their employers is basically one of slaves, the ones who try to escape from their deplorable situations are described as runaways, and fines are attached to them when they are captured.
When they are employed, they are purchased, just like any of the other goods available in Dubai’s endless malls and stores.
Talking about the abuse of domestic labour in the Gulf to a Pakistani audience poses its own conundrums, as do the global politics of race and nationality that define the whole calculation.
Deplorable treatment by those in one’s employ, particularly those in domestic arrangements, is considered entirely permissible by South Asian moral standards.
In Pakistan, stories abound of servant children being made to work 18-hour days, maids regularly sexually abused, and all of them, both male and female domestic help treated like lesser human beings.
The separate utensils allotted to them, the differential rules applied to them, the invisibility foisted upon them, all substantiate this and without question.
The maids and domestic workers that go abroad to labour in the houses under the shadow of the glistening Burj live in terror of losing their jobs. One would imagine then that Pakistanis themselves eager for jobs abroad would empathise with such horrors, even work energetically toward preventing them.
Yet it is not so, the lords and masters of the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia do to their domestic workers what we do to our own, everyone together maintaining a ceaseless chain of exploitation and servitude.
In the middle, as in Joseph O Neill’s novel, stands the Western world, condemning what Arabs do to South Asians and South Asians do to themselves.
The report issued by the Human Rights Watch exposes in the case of the UAE what Pakistanis or Indians and so many others see happening in their own homes and in those of their neighbours.
In this world, there are no international conventions; no means exist to protect the humanity or the personhood of a poor woman or a poor man.
Institutionalised by the aching want of many millions and by the moral acceptance of the premise that power means ownership, slavery lives on.