Serving the rich on an empty stomach

Published February 8, 2015
A girl cleans a window at a house where her mother works as a maid. — Photo by the writer
A girl cleans a window at a house where her mother works as a maid. — Photo by the writer

If you work as a maid in the capital, your day starts at the crack of dawn. Sometimes, there is time to leave oil glazed chapattis for your sleeping children.

But mostly, you leave in a rush and hope the oldest child will make breakfast for the younger ones. You hope they will be safe while you are at work.

At the employer’s house, the work appears to be easy; menial household chores. But each task, done manually, takes time.

“I make breakfast, wash and iron clothes, dust the whole house, peel and cut vegetables and do the dishes in between. I cook lunch and dinner, set the table, clear the table, do the dishes again,” says Rumaisa, who works as a maid in sector F-7.

Most domestic workers in affluent neighbourhoods have no legal rights

Exhausted, Rumaisa retreats to the ‘servant-quarter’ behind the house at around 10pm every night, usually with an empty stomach. She is not given a portion from the meal she has spent all day preparing for her employer’s family.

The servant quarter itself is a small room with peeling paint, where she lives with her husband and four children.

Her youngest child is two. He spends his days toddling between the house, the lawn and the servant quarter, often unattended.

“Sometimes he wanders onto the street and I don’t even know because I am so busy with work,” she says.

For sixteen hours of work, seven days a week, she is paid a mere Rs7,000. “I am supposed to have one day of the week off, but I barely ever get to take that holiday. Instead, once a month I take three days off to visit my family in the village,” she says.

Rumaisa came to Islamabad from a village near Attock with her mother when she was a teenager. Her family lived in this same servant quarter, her mother having served another generation of her employers’ family.

Twenty years and four different addresses later, as a married woman she returned to this house to take the same job her mother once had. Her only hope is that with her own daughters, this cycle is broken.

Rumaisa’s story is far from uncommon. In most houses in Islamabad’s most expensive neighbourhoods, where the houses are valued at anywhere between Rs100 to 200 million, each family has a servant quarter at the back of the house.

The only other type of cheap housing available, in the vicinity, is in the Christian slums.

Some women are paid a salary for the work they do, but most work in exchange for a place to live. The terms of service are only agreed upon verbally and the employee has no formal rights.

Full-time women workers are paid around Rs6,000 Rupees, which is half the minimum wage and also just a fraction of what male cooks are paid.

Tasks are routinely added to the regular workload without an increase in salary. All members of the maids’ family, including the children, are expected to help out without any extra payment. For many domestic workers, if there is an agreed break, it is cancelled by the employers at whim.

Even in their down time, they are expected to remain on the premises. If they wish to leave the house, even for an hour, they are expected to seek permission from the employers.

Sameena has spent most of her life working as a fulltime maid in sector F-6. “My employer’s elderly father became bedridden and I had to take care of him, on top of the household work.

I even changed his diapers. In our culture, it’s inappropriate for a woman to change a grown man’s diapers, but I did it because I had no choice.

I told myself that he is helpless and God will reward me for taking care of him,” Sameena narrated.

“But the day the old man died, his son turned me out,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears.

Overnight, Sameena had to find a new place to live. “I have three teenage daughters who work as maids in the neighbourhood, so we couldn’t leave F-6,” she says.

At the next house where Sameena found employment, her daughters were sexually harassed.

“The employer would grab my daughters every chance he got. We couldn’t do much, we had nowhere to go,” she says, playing nervously with the corner of her shawl.

For part-time maids who live the Christian slums in F-7 and F-6, bigotry brings an added set of difficulties.

“I am a Christian so I am not allowed to touch any utensils at the houses where I work. If I accidently touch a kitchen counter while mopping the floor, they scold me. It makes me feel like an animal,” says Sobia, who sweeps houses for a living.

Her words belie her scant education. “When they go abroad, they eat in the same dishes as Christians, that doesn’t bother them,” she says, incisively.

“People take us for granted because we are poor. They will tell me that I will sweep two rooms every day and it will end up being five without extra money. But I never argue with my employers over money, I take what they give me,” she says.

The lack of a formal contract between workers and their employers also creates problems for the employers. Mrs Lateef, a resident of F-7, complained about the lack of “work ethic” among the domestic workers she has hired over the years.

“They leave for a couple of days, ask for an advance on their salary and then disappear for weeks. After they run out of the money, they come back and beg for their jobs back. A formal contract on stamp paper would benefit both parties,” she says.

Amidst these routine injustices, there are distant voices being raised for legal entitlements for domestic workers.

Last month, in Lahore, Pakistan’s first trade union for domestic workers was formed by The Pakistan Workers Federation. Most of the 235 members are women.

Around the same time, in Rawalpindi, 200 women workers from the informal sector gathered for a convention organised by Uks Research Centre in collaboration with Gender Equity Program (GEP) of Aurat Foundation.

At the convention there were calls for unionisation so that the workers can rally for their rights.

But until the long process of unionisation, lobbying and legislation begins, less than 6 kms from the parliament and supreme court, the capital’s maids will remain exploited workers without rights.

When asked how they feel about a formal contract, Sameena and Rumaisa lit up but Sobia sighed and says, “Compassion is what you need first. Laws can’t teach people empathy.”

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2015

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