The wretched lives of domestic servants

Anyone familiar with the duties of domestic servants in countless homes in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, would think that Romana Cacchioli is describing their plight, rather than those of slaves in north Africa.

We recently saw pictures of Israeli children cheerfully writing messages on bombs and artillery shells ready to be fired on villages in south Lebanon.  Political parties and movements often put children at the forefront of rallies and demonstrations to push their own demands, to which the children can barely relate, if at all.

States brainwash children to be “loyal” citizens, whatever that means.  We definitely know what it means in North Korea, where malnourished children sing in praise of the “dear leader”.  Mao Zedong organized teenagers into his dreaded “Red Guards” who ripped the fabric of Chinese society.

But these are the mental forms of the exploitation of children. There is also the crude physical and sexual abuse of poor children, rampant in the Third World.

In the mid-1990s the sexual abuse of domestic servants in the Gulf countries made headlines when Sarah Balabagan, a 15-year Philippine girl, was jailed in the UAE for stabbing to death her Arab master who had raped her.  The international, cultural and judicial aspects of the affair generated huge publicity, but the ill treatment of domestic servants from poorer countries in relatively rich countries and within their own countries is widespread and quite well-known.

In the late 1990s, there was the case of Shokina, a runaway Bangladeshi maid in Kuwait, one of the few that get reported.  When interviewed by a journalist in the Bangladeshi embassy in Kuwait, her face was covered in bruises, her arms had long claw-like scars down to her wrists and burns from cigarette butts dotted the back of her hands. She had been kicked in the back, punched in the head, scratched on the face, pinched, pulled and spat on by her mistress.

In a welcome move, the Indian government has just announced a ban on children under 14 working as domestic servants. The new law also bans children from teashops, restaurants, hotels, motels, resorts, spas or other recreational centres.

To what extent will the ban be enforced in practice is highly questionable.  Many parents of the children the law is aimed to help will be concerned with the consequences of the loss of employment, however harsh the conditions.  For many children it may mean sliding into full starvation from a state of deprivation, oppression and semi-starvation.

Crippling poverty forces parents to send their children, sometimes as young as five or six, to work in other people’s homes or in factories, sweatshops, workshops, hotels, restaurants, roadside eateries and tea-stalls.

Children who should be going to school and enjoying sports and other recreational activities are instead condemned to a life of servitude where their labour is exploited for up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for a pittance. In addition, they are the victims of beatings and insults almost on a daily basis and, not infrequently, also of sexual abuse.

According to research in the nineties, child labor is most concentrated in Asia and Africa, which together account for more than 90 percent of total child employment. Though there are more child workers in Asia than anywhere else, a higher percentage of African children participate in the labor force.

Asia is led by India which has 44 million child laborers, giving it the largest child workforce in the world. In Pakistan, 10 percent of all workers are between the ages of 10 and 14 years. Nigeria has 12 million child workers. Child labor is also common in South America. For example, there are 7 million children working in Brazil.

Last year, researchers in Indonesia interviewed 44 girls in seven cities, more than half of whom complained of physical or sexual abuse.  They received wages ranging from nothing to $50 a month.  Many complained of not getting enough to eat, sleeping in store rooms, working 14 to 18 hours a day and never having a day off except during the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr.

Despite the evidence of mistreatment, the report said few of the 19 government officials interviewed were prepared to admit there was a problem or a need to have regulation in the area. It quoted an official from the National Ministry of Manpower as saying that if maids were given a day off “they would not know what to do and would not know where to go”.

The Indonesian Minister for People’s Welfare, Alwi Shihab, said the practice of wealthier families taking care of children from poor families had long been the basis for the system of maids in Indonesia and did not need regulating. “You Westerners don’t understand – it’s a cultural issue,” he said, adding that maids “can run away if something is wrong”.  An official from the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment went further, saying that girls should not be viewed as domestic workers as “they are regarded by employers as their own children”.

Nevertheless, Jakarta complains about the treatment of Indonesian domestic servants in neighbouring Malaysia and Singpore.  A couple of years ago, the then president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, met the mother of Nirmala Bonat after Malaysian papers published pictures of the Indonesian maid whose employer repeatedly burnt her with an iron.  Nirmala’s mistress tortured her for over five months, before she was spotted by someone wearing bloodstained clothes, rescued from her tormentor and taken to the authorities.

According to a newspaper report in Bangladesh, a woman had attacked her female servant with a red-hot iron and nearly blinded her out of jealousy, as the little girl was attracting the sexual attention of her husband.

I personally knew of a senior, divorced Bangladeshi diplomat in Morocco whose maid-servant, whom he had imported from back home, was a virtual slave, confined to the four walls of his flat, not allowed to see or talk to anybody.  After many years of faithful service, with not a day off, she was flown back to Bangladesh on a one-day notice, and paid just about $500 as wages for years of toil and deprivation after her arrival.

While those like her live lives of virtual slavery, in some Saharan countries, such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania, real slavery is still practiced.  According to Romana Cacchioli, Africa program officer for the campaign group Anti-Slavery International, “the slave women attend to all the domestic duties, making sure the masters don’t even lift a cup. Water is brought for the masters, food is brought for them. Their clothing is washed and their children looked after”.

Anyone familiar with the duties of domestic servants in countless homes in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, would think that Romana Cacchioli is describing their plight, rather than those of slaves in north Africa.

The Indian government’s initiative in this matter is a welcome move.  It is a shame that governments have done precious little to enact legislation to prevent the exploitation and abuse of domestic servants and virtually nothing to enforce the laws and regulations that exist. The miserable condition of domestic servants in the Third World is one of the saddest untold stories of our times, for many are those who are complicit in this crime and, therefore, have a vested interest in keeping silent about it.

By Razi Azmi

(Published in Daily Times, 24 August 2006)

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3 Responses to The wretched lives of domestic servants

  1. Nadeem says:

    Very thoughtful article from Dr Azmi. This world needs strict legal framework which clearly identifies and eliminates child labour in domestic work. In India I have seen children, mostly girls, carrying out house hold tasks like cleaning and cooking, and unfortunately it doesn’t come under the category of child labour.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    You have addressed a very important issue. There are no rules and regulations by any state where the servants working time could be regulated. They are mistreated and are made to work like donkeys. It is a sad affair. But thanks for raising the issue and making readers aware of this curse.

  3. Jehanzeb says:

    It is heartbreaking how we treat our children. It is our culture of abuse and powerplay that perpetuates the exploitation of children, maids, servent, anyone who is week and needy. Regulations and enforcement achieve little other than sweeping the problem under the carpet. Punjab enacted quite strong laws against child labour a couple of years back but has it changed anything on the ground? People need to change themselves if things are to improve. Unfortunately, we Pakistanis are among the most violent people. We view things emotionally and irrationally and our approach is often devoid of facts and objectivity.

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