The holy month of Ramzan is upon us. This blessed month brings with it boundless benedictions, along with a wave of festivities and social gatherings. At least in Lahore, the month of Ramzan ushers in a thirty-day culture of ostentatious Iftaaris, with elaborate menus and an extravagant sense of fashion. Iftaar becomes a daily celebration. Each day, friends and family gather at sunset, in homes and restaurants, celebrating their piety, with kids playing in the background, and laughter echoing across the summer evening.
Click! Isn’t this the very picture of a pious, happy and virtuous society.
But wait!! Zoom in a little… Who is that in the background? A maid, or a “servant”, taking care of the kids, or frantically running between the muggy kitchen and the air-conditioned dining room! In restaurants, you see them sitting on a separate table, consigned to nibble on the leftovers of the food extravaganza. Soon, as the day winds to an end, they will return to their small “servant quarters”, at the back of the house, trying to steal what little sleep they can, from the clutches of the summer heat and the mosquitos. Their day will soon start again, with errands to run and bathrooms to clean, all in pursuit of the paltry salary at the end of the month.
This arrangement, comfortable as it might be for most of us, begs very fundamental questions about our humanity: Have we, as a nation, become convinced that not all people are equal? Have we, quietly (but surely), given up on the dream of a classless society? Have we accepted the idea that how one’s life turns out to be, for the most part, is simply an accident of birth? And specifically (keeping aside the State’s responsibilities of providing education, employment and healthcare to its citizens), is there no basic minimum – in terms of housing, salary, and ancillary benefits – that private individuals owe to their employees?
Speaking of “basic minimums”, it is perhaps appropriate to start with the legal paradigm of minimum wage in our society. It turns out that Pakistan has two basic laws that govern this area – The Minimum Wage Ordinance, 1961, and The West Pakistan Minimum Wages For Unskilled Workers Ordinance, 1969. The 1961 Ordinance is applicable to all “industrial establishments” employees (whether skilled, unskilled or apprentices, including even domestic workers) but excludes those of Federal or Provincial governments, coalmine employees or persons employed in agriculture. On the other hand, the 1969 Ordinance (per section 3), places a legal obligation on all owner of “a commercial or industrial establishment” to pay a minimum salary (specified in a Schedule of the Ordinance) to each employee. (It excludes persons in service of Pakistan, defense services, ports, railways, telegraph and telephone, postal services, firefighting, electricity, gas, water supply and hospitals.) Additionally, it allows certain deductions that the employer can make from this minimum salary, in case the employer is so magnanimous as to provide “housing accommodation” or “transport” to the workers.
Under these laws, the government (Federal and Provincial) has determined the minimum wages payable. Most recently, in the latest budget, Federal Government increased the minimum wage to Rs. 15,000 per month.
This sets the stage; now to the problem at hand: notwithstanding the idea that Rs. 15,000 is a paltry amount for someone supporting a family of five and trying to put the kids through school, the deeper issue is that these figures are meaningless for the countless daily-wagers, private employees and domestic “servants(!)” who have to individually negotiate their salary with the conscience of some Mercedes-driving ‘saith’. The government, Federal or Provincial, has no real way of ensuring that the minimum wage standards are being adhered to by private employers. The government’s sphere of influence, at the very maximum, extends to such individuals who are being employed by the State run or a State controlled organization.
The State’s inability and lack of seriousness is evident from the fact that (according to labor department statistics) in Lahore there are only 15 labor inspectors. In the entire province of Punjab, there are only 100!
Is it possible that in a province with a population of over 100 million people – and thousands of small industries, shops and commercial establishments – a total of 100 labor inspectors (with minimalistic resources) will be able to enforce the minimum wage laws? Is it not true then that we, as a nation, have no priority in ‘fixing’ the minimum wage (and thus, by extension, the minimum basic standard of living) in our society?
Next question: is only the government to blame for this, or do we all share part of the guilt?
Let us, for a moment, concede the idea that our government (federal and provincial) is corrupt, inept and apathetic. Let us also concede that it will remain so, regardless of which party comes to power (or which dictator claims the role of a ‘savior’). Does that mean that individuals in our nation, who are privileged in terms of wealth and education, do not have a stake in the issue? Just because the government cannot enforce the minimum wage , must we continue to pay our cook, or driver, or sweeper, or guard, the minimum amount that keeps them from walking away? Must we build our ‘kothis’ and farmhouses in gaudy affluence, with downtrodden “servant quarters” and substandard bathrooms, to house five guards? Must we shut our eyes to the fact that the people who work with us, or for us, have children who are being denied (for want of money) the very basic education that costs no more than a trip to our favorite restaurant?
It is time that we shift our national conscience from a ‘vertical interpretation of fundamental rights’ (where each citizen claims its rights, under the Constitution, from the State alone), to a more ‘horizontal’ approach (where, irrespective of the State, each citizen claims the basic fundamental rights from the other). And this, above all, entails a change in the orientation of our spirit.
Ultimately, history (and divinity!) judges the character of a society, by how it treats the poor, the condemned, and the helpless. For now, we – as a society – stand guilty as charged, in regards to our conduct towards domestic help. Unless this changes, it will matter how many rozas we kept, or tarawis we offered. Only through a change in our attitude towards those less fortunate then us, can we begin to understand truly profound mysteries about who we are, and who we wish to become.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.