Freedom of slaves

Published May 16, 2021
The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad.
The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad.

KUNTA Kinte, the protagonist-ancestor of Alex Haley in Roots, is snatched from his village in the Gambia, away from his family, homeland and dreams, and transported in chains, amidst lashings, filth, disease and death to the US. There he is sold as a slave. Repeated attempts at escape end up in failure; the free-spirited and dignified Kunta finally succumbs to a life in bondage.

While a vibrant slave trade made the supply of slaves to the whites possible in the US, we breed slaves aplenty in our own homeland. Abject poverty and extreme inequality bring people to surrender themselves and their children as slaves, primarily in urban centres, to serve the masters round the clock — cleaning, scraping, mopping, cooking, driving — for at times as little as a few morsels of food and lodgings. Some masters choose to be relatively humane, others not.

In these skewed relationships between master and servant, the state, despite being full of rot itself — is required to intervene. The notion of freedom of contract, still championed by laissez-faire enthusiasts, only facilitates this exploitation. When the asymmetry in power relations is so distorted, there is no freedom in these interactions — of contract, or otherwise.

We breed slaves aplenty in our own homeland.

As a society, we need to compel our institutions, otherwise conditioned to serve only the privileged, to look out for the proverbial little guy. Our Constitution mandates it: Article 3 states that “[t]he State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation”; under Article 9 “[n]o person shall be deprived … of liberty save in accordance with law”, under Article 11(2) “[a]ll forms of forced labour … are prohibited”; under Article, 14 “[t]he dignity of man … shall be inviolable”. Then there is the mighty unfulfilled promise of Article 25 that “[a]ll citizens are equal before law”.

With such wonderful guarantees on paper, one is reminded of Justice Scalia’s taunt that “[e]very banana-republic has a bill of rights”.

Moreover, there are two legislative Acts, in field, that have attempted to meagrely address the exploitation in our households: the Domestic Workers Act, 2013, in Islamabad, and the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019. Both tend to set out the minimum age of workers, minimum wage, maximum hours, paid leave and social security benefits.

Both Acts charitably provide that the workers serving in our homes are to be referred to as ‘domestic workers’, and not ‘servants’. While well-intentioned, this change in nomenclature does not change the reality, just as our Constitution’s bold assertion in Article 11 that “[s]lavery is non-existent”, does not change the fact that slavery very much exists. It is a lived reality for not only our domestic workers, but also others — bonded labourers at brick kilns, vassals on farms and industrial workers in factories.

The condition of our domestic workers, meanwhile, continues to be dependent on their masters’ disposition, despite the Constitution and the Acts. This is because while the dictates of law send the right signal to society, for any law to take root the values undergirding it have to be widely embraced.

Pakistan, however, has a widespread culture of servility, sycophancy and embedded hierarchies that allows for continued exploitation. Our state — from whom one expects intervention for the sake of the marginalised — exploits people’s poverty, ensuring that there is a ready supply of ‘domestic workers’ to elected representatives, the bureaucrats, the generals and the justices. This dichotomy of master-servant relationships is evident in public — for instance, in the courtrooms, where, for interpreting and applying the guarantees of the Constitution, the justices remain dependent on naib qasids to slavishly open doors for them.

The conception of fundamental rights, after all, is shaped by the ideas already pervasive in society. Before the abolition of slavery in the US, their supreme court in Dred Scott vs Sandford — a 7-2 decision rendered in 1857 — held that slaves were “property” of their owners, and that under the Fifth Amendment of their Constitution, the owners could not be deprived of their property without due process. The irony is patent. The bill of rights was employed to protect the master and beat down the slave; mere words on paper are often employed in such twisted ways. The law protecting the master, instead of the vulnerable slave, is the sort of history that has often repeated itself, especially in our part of the world.

The decision in Dred Scott instigated many to question, much more forcefully, the legitimacy of slavery, finally resulting in the Civil War (1861-1865). Many fought and died for the dignity of their fellow men, others for the continuation of slavery.

The same choice presents itself to us; whether it is the people’s dignity, or their continued enslavement, that we consider worth fighting for.

The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad.

awahid@umich.edu

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2021

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