In the early 20th century, domestic help was the largest employment sector in Britain. Today, half of all households in England employ domestic help of some sort, paying over 20 billion pounds every year.
The British in India brought similar traditions, accentuating the lines between the nobility and the common people. In order to maintain control, they created a landed class which became the local aristocracy with feudal status, whom they kept in their pocket. Given a piece of land, the servants worked for the feudal master in return from one generation to another. It is said that in India today domestic help is still the largest sector of employment.
In Pakistan, there is usually no contract or job description for domestic servants. As a result, the servant knows that he will end up doing all the household chores. From cleaning and dusting, to cooking, washing and ironing, a servant is a general purpose help, often like a slave. His salary in Islamabad could be as high as Rs7,000 or as low as Rs2,000 a month.
Typically, the full time servant also gets board and lodging on the premises but quite often he has no fixed hours of duty. If he falls ill, he has to fend for himself unless a kind employer takes him to a doctor.
It is estimated that in Pakistan about 70 per cent of domestic servants are females. The Child Labour Act of 1991 made employment of children under 15 illegal. And yet a survey in 1996 showed that three million children were working in the country. However, with the informal sector taken into account, this figure would be much higher.
A bill was passed, banning domestic violence, in 2009 by the present government but no case of domestic violence has been known to have led to punishment.
Female domestic employees in this sector suffer because of a gender bias as well. The parents of a young maid, for instance, might withdraw a case of domestic violence to save face and retain family income, as state protection for victims is weak.
Because of maltreatment, economic pressure and rapid urbanisation, the master-servant relationship has become tense. The number of cases where a servant has attacked, and in some cases killed a master or mistress, is rising. (In almost all such cases, though, the foul mouth of the master drove the servant to violence.)
So let us have enforceable contracts in the domestic help sector. Otherwise, the seething rage that servants feel against their employers is likely to keep erupting, a fearful prospect in these times of post-flood stagflation.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th, 2010.