Domestic staff at dinner: Restaurant owners in Pakistan speak up

Published March 5, 2015
When a picture of a maid apparently being mistreated at a cafe in Karachi went viral, social media went into a frenzy. - Photo courtesy: Yusra Askari
When a picture of a maid apparently being mistreated at a cafe in Karachi went viral, social media went into a frenzy. - Photo courtesy: Yusra Askari

Popular Facebook group Karachi Food Diary (KFD) usually features debates about which khao suey is the best in town.

But a few days ago, things took a serious turn when a user posted an image of a family having a meal at Xander's, a well-known eatery on Karachi's E Street, and their two maids standing in a corner, taking care of their child.

The image was initially posted on Twitter and has been retweeted over 1,200 times since. People instantly jumped to conclusions and deemed the family monsters.

One user on Facebook said, "If a maid can take care of your child, why can't she sit at the same table?"

Another chimed in, "The so-called upper class has no class."

One woman classified them as unlawful citizens: "Child labour is a crime and these people are culprits."

The debate raised several questions relating to privacy, class stratification and labour law. While it's true that for some, a secretly taken photograph of a family enjoying a meal out would constitute an invasion of privacy, for others if this helps expose a social issue it's justified. And while some criticised the family for not giving their staff a seat at the table, others claimed their own staff feels uncomfortable partaking in family meals and may prefer an alternative situation.

What do restaurant owners feel?

The incident exposes the ugly side of upper class society, a segment that usually includes restaurant owners themselves. So we asked a few restaurant owners to give us their take on the incident, and what, if any, policies they feel could be implemented for the future.

Xander's, where the incident took place and the site of the infamous photograph, has been thrown into the spotlight. Owner Alexandre Rizvi gives us his side of the story:

"I questioned my staff about what happened and they informed me that the maids had been seated with their employers initially. When the child they were taking care of got fussy they got up to walk around a little to calm him down. In those few minutes, a picture was taken and put up on social media and blown way out of proportion."

He adds, "You can’t just take pictures of people out for dinner with their family. It’s unethical and a complete invasion of privacy.”

Restaurant owners may have to flout the rule 'the customer is always right'

Saima Achria of The Patio says, "As owners, we can't be dictating social values and making rules as to how customers treat their domestic staff. However we have never experienced such an incident: our customers generally allow their staff to sit and offer them a drink or even a meal in some cases."

Abid Merchant of Fika raises an important point: "There’s been talk on KFD about how a separate area being allocated to them could solve the issue. Again, that’s discriminatory also and not really possible for restaurant owners to do when they’ve got an intimate, small place. If people do bring their maids along, they should definitely make them sit at the same table. If they're not going to do that, then they shouldn't bring them out at all because such discriminatory behaviour is unacceptable."

Talking to Muhammad Ali Teli, the owner of Pantry, he shares his experience, stating: "Just a few days ago, I had a lady come with her maid and she asked the young girl if she’d like some juice and she said yes. The waiter inquired whether the woman would like her to have boxed juice or fresh juice (the latter obviously being slightly pricier) and the woman said give her fresh juice, the same that we’re having. The majority of customers don’t discriminate but there are some who do and with such progressive social media, they are bound to get caught."

Does social media bring out the worst in us or the best?

Alexandre of Xander's told us that the people in the picture came to him, furious, demanding the CCTV footage from that night be released so they can silence the attacks being hurled at them in the virtual world. The Xander's team is working on locating the footage.

There's no doubt that the ease with which photos can be shared online is both a curse and a blessing, depending on which party you are.

In this case, the possibility of being shamed in public may police behaviour. Also on KFD, a group member posted this comment:

"Funny story, a couple of days ago I went to Xander's with some friends. There was a group of ladies where one of them had a maid and a baby. Whilst giving the waiter the order, one of the ladies (referring to her maid) said "Bhai sab say pehlay isskay liyay kursi laado, pata nahin kaun Facebook per humein zaleel karday (first things first, please bring out a chair for her to be seated on — who knows who will shame us on Facebook)."

There's no denying this incident sheds light on an uncomfortable system that most Pakistanis engage with every day: depending on domestic staff members to take care of intimate aspects of life such as child rearing while treating them as lower-class citizens at the same time.



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