Friday, March 28, 2014

Plight of the Poor

This appeared in "Republica" Daily on 26 March 2014.

Samjhana KC, 25, sells vegetables at an Old Baneshwar crossroad in Kathmandu. It has been five years since she started her business. Before that, she used to be a live-in servant in the house of a middle-class family in Bishalnagar. Hailing from a remote village in Dolakha district, she was brought to Kathmandu some 12 years back while she was very young. The employing family had promised her decent food, clothes and education. She worked for the family for five years and went to another family for three years. During these years, she saved some money and started her own business. She says that she doesn’t want her children to do any household works. 

The culture of keeping live-in servants was ubiquitous few years back in Nepal. Domestic helps used to be easily available to work in upper and middle class families in urban locations. Usually poor people like Samjhana from remote villages were hired as servants. Unskilled workers provided for cheap labor for a long time. Ranging from minors to the aged, these servants did household chores for minimum wages.

According to International Labor Organization’s recent data, domestic helps comprise around 12 percent of the working population in developing countries. The 2013 joint report of The International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch states that around 40 percent of domestic workers are employed in Asian countries. These workers have been abused and exploited by their employers, the report indicts.

Domestic workers have been found to be living in horrific conditions. Very rich families may provide separate servants’ quarters but middle class families keep servants under staircases or other cramped spaces. Decent food and cloth is rare. The workers have to labor for almost 18 hours a day. Even progressive families have an unwritten rule that servants should not sit on the same furniture or use the same crockery their employers use. 

Servants are vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. A police officer’s family subjecting a minor worker to brutal torture and underfeeding made headlines few years back. Influential people raping their maids have also been reported. Rather than being subjected to such mistreatments, unskilled laborers prefer to open their own small business as seen in Samjhana’s case above. 

J. Maillard/ILO

Dr Rudra Gautam, associate professor at the Central Department of Economics of Tribhuvan University (TU), had conducted a survey on Nepali domestic workers in 2011. The survey found that there were over 160,000 domestic workers across Nepal. Most of these workers were minors and they had not been paid proper wages. 

United Nations agencies and rights organizations have been pressuring Nepal government to ratify Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Nepal had voted for the Convention in the 100th session of International Labor Organization. It has, however, shown reluctance in ratifying the Convention and make necessary laws to prevent abuses of workers’ rights. One can’t be sure Nepal will do any good regarding domestic workers’ rights even after ratifying the Convention. Nepal has an excellent track record of ratifying international conventions and making domestic laws but failing to implement them. 

But the trend of becoming live-in domestic servants seems to be changing in the recent years. Families say it has become harder to find live-in staff. Demand is rising as more women go out to work and fewer live in joint families where in-laws act as nannies. Yet supply is falling. Servants, in turn, are more able than before to demand decent working conditions. Wages appear to be rising, causing grumbles among employers. Incidents of servants scampering off with employers’ goods never to reappear have also instilled fear in employers to hire live-in servants. Even live-out servants are hard to find these days.

With the rising demand of unskilled workers in the Gulf countries, many domestic workers have chosen to go abroad. This is another reason for the dearth of domestic workers here. Government of Nepal has made agreement with foreign countries to supply laborers. Mostly women are employed as domestic helps abroad. But their sorrows continue even there. Since this type of work belongs to informal sector, the government cannot even keep track of these domestic workers. Violent cases of sexual harassment and physical torture on Nepali women workers in some Gulf nations at the hand of employers have been reported. An estimated 2.5 million Nepali women work abroad legally and illegally, according to the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre. They have been living in risk.

With the development of new technologies that ease household chores, the need of servants seems to be on the wane. Modern dishwashers, washing machines and dusting equipments have appeared in the market. But despite the availability of such devices, very rich people still keep servants. In an interesting study of employers’ psychology entitled “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, Thorstein Veblen states that even after the appearances of labor-saving devices that would considerably reduce the need for household labor, people hired servants not to relieve themselves of tedious tasks, but to be provided with “conspicuous subservience”. A servant both satisfied the master’s “propensity for dominance” and presented a public “performance of leisure”. The feeling of dominance and submission in master-servant relationship gives pleasure to the employer.

As long as economic inequality remains in the world, practice of hiring servants for domestic chores will continue. The location may shift to the developed world but servants will always be there. 

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