Life is stranger than fiction. Last week, a fellow mum at the elite, English-medium school my children go to spotted a woman outside our school as my friend waited in her car with her toddler for her older child. This woman parked her own car, stepped out and disappeared inside school, obviously there to pick up her child. Shortly after, my friend saw a little girl, probably six, cowering next to this recently vacated car. Clearly terrified, she was crouching near the front bumper of the car whilst passers-by shot her curious and leering looks. After observing this for a very uncomfortable, worried while, my friend got out of her car to investigate. The other mum showed up, her child in tow. It turned out that the little girl was this woman’s maid, and had been left to her own devices because the school doesn’t allow house help inside. So instead of letting a small child stay in the car, or be taken to sit on school benches provided for all house help who come to fetch students, this woman thought it was perfectly appropriate to leave a quaking child unattended by the side of a busy road while Madam went inside to fetch her own, same-age child.

Not surprisingly, this lady dismissed the entire episode as over-concern from a stranger and drove off. But this example is just one of thousands, and everyone has a story to tell. Young boys and girls are employed as house help all across this country, and it is high time we started speaking up about how problematic and dangerous this is. Anyone under eighteen is legally a minor. If you are not considered an adult by the state—if you aren’t legally allowed to drive or vote, and need a guardian to sign documents for you—then what logic makes it acceptable for a child to wash dishes, clean houses and carry infants instead? Children are meant to be in school. If they can’t go to school, then they should be home with their parent or guardian. The logic many upper class people offer, by way of justifying their child employees, is that these children are already helping in the kitchen and with cleaning at home, for free—so by employing them, one is actually monetizing labour they are already performing! Hurrah, because making tea for your parents at home is exactly the same as making tea for strangers in whose house you work! Playing with your baby sibling while your grandmother is keeping an eye on you is exactly the same as crouching gingerly on the carpet of a baby’s nursery, tentatively playing with a child you don’t know, as your employer speaks as if you’re invisible.

But you’re paying them, and giving them three meals a day, and giving them a place to sleep. Isn’t that much better than being one of many, all crowded in a single room, with barely enough to eat? It’s not like you’re asking them to weave carpets of sew footballs. Ideally, sure. If you were actually treating the children in your employ like your own children, then sure, it would be better. If you were paying this child a living wage, comfortably above minimum wage, maybe it would on some questionable level justify their presence in your house. But do you? Does your maid wear the same clothes, eat the same food, go to school, and celebrate her birthday like your children? Do you expect your child to do the same chores your maid does? Imagine for a moment any child you love scrubbing clothes, mopping floors, being screamed at by adults, and in many instances, beaten and abused the way so many children employed in houses are. If your insides shrivel for a child you know, then why should it be different for any child, regardless of which family they were born to?

In reality, our class prejudices and biases are so deeply ingrained and so determinedly held on to that most people would die before letting their help use the spare room’s bathroom, for example. The photos you see floating around on the internet of maids being seated at separate tables at restaurants, or standing in a corner while the employer’s family has a good time—that’s the reality of child labour in households. People like the woman at school are what most employers of children are like. They are the people who don’t see poor people as actual people, or their children as just a child like one’s own. “They” are used to a bad, hard life, so whatever kind of life “they” have in our households must be better and wonderful, ergo “they” should be operating on a constant arc of servile gratitude for the leftovers you generously give them to eat, or the hand me downs you pass on, or the fact that you took your child maid along to pick up Baji instead of leaving her home alone. None of this is a great favour you are doing. It is the bare minimum, the most basic level of common decency. There should be no prizes given to you for treating your help like humans, and in this case, less than. How ironic that one can be spending a great deal of money to educate one’s child in schools that keep encouraging empathy and human rights, but that privilege only extends to your affluent child—not to the child who is standing by the side of a road next to your car, because fate gave her parents who sent her out to work. It’s not enough now to merely tut about this to other people. It’s time to take action. If you know people who employ children, call them out. Don’t send your child on playdates to homes where children are employed. Don’t go to tea in a house where a child is serving. Make it clear that you will not participate in furthering a cycle of what is essentially watered-down abuse. This is the only way we can create change, and hopefully one day children will have the childhoods they deserve because other adults were watching out for them.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

 m.malikhussain@gmail.com