The Homeworker's May Day
Aasha Mehreen Amin
The biggest irony of May Day is that few labourers in Bangladesh or anywhere else in this subcontinent for that matter, have any knowledge about this day that commemorates the famous Hay Market incident in Chicago Illinois in 1886. According to the wikipedia the three-day general strike in Chicago involved labourers, artisans, merchants and immigrants. It was a consequence of a police firing on a group of workers who were striking at a harvesting machine plant; four of the strikers were killed and this led to the call for a rally at Hay Market the next day. Unfortunately, the otherwise peaceful rally turned violent when an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd of police which left a dozen people dead, among them seven policemen. In the end four so-called anarchists were publicly hanged. Later May Day became a globally recognised holiday and a day to plan events to call for labour rights to be respected.
Most privileged members of society will happily celebrate this holiday without having an iota of interest in its significance, far less the decency to give those who work for them at home, the day off. The garments workers and factory workers will get a much needed holiday, while many will 'voluntarily' forgo this luxury because they just cannot afford not to work as it means going hungry for the day. But for the homeworker who slogs everyday and is rarely entitled to a weekly holiday (in most households), there is no question of getting off from work on May 1. "Is it true everyone is supposed to get a holiday today?" asks Fatema, a cook who has worked for 40 or so years in a well-to-do household and has never heard of May Day until last year when she happened to watch a part of a news report on TV. Fatema who is about 60, works seven days a week, most of her work involves standing in front of the stove for hours making mouth-watering delicacies for her employers. She suffers from varicose veins and acidity, frequent headaches, her teeth are in bad shape and she chews paan to ward off the constant toothache. She works from 9:30 am to 8 or 9 pm at night and never gets a day off and it never occurs to her employers that maybe, just maybe she needs a break.
Strange and appalling as it may sound, besides a handful of exceptions, people who can afford to keep home workers do not look at them as human beings. They are treated like robots who must perform on demand, at the press of a calling button or the shriek of their names from the other end of the house. They must drop everything and run or else face verbal or worse, physical abuse. They are not supposed to feel exhausted, to want to eat the delicious food that they bring to the table, they must not let their attention stray to the exciting Hindi serials that their employers so avidly watch and most of all they are not allowed to make mistakes. They can't forget, they are supposed to have photographic memory; they should know when the madam wants bread or paratha because they should have ESP. And why on earth would they need holidays besides the designated week or two to their village each year? Why should they feel lonely in a houseful of people, why should they need sometime on their own or feel the need to just get out of the house for an hour or two after days of being confined to the four walls of someone else's house?
One of the most common (and infuriating) remarks made by employers is how it is becoming so difficult to get 'kajer lok' (domestic workers) because all the young girls and women are rushing off to the garment factories. These people, who can barely survive a day without the maid running to their beck and call, never bother to ask the basic question: Why? Why do they prefer to sit at a machine, in a cramped, hot factory floor for twelve hours a day, endure lewd comments from male co-workers or face perverts and muggers on the street? Most garment workers have to pay hefty amounts of money for rent and have to arrange their own meals, which are often quite measly. The reason is simple. Garment workers get paid more and have fixed benefits such as overtime and weekly holidays. It is not the ideal job and many garment factories violate labour laws under which garment workers fall. But it is far better than being a domestic worker whose salary is determined by the whims of the employer and that too, one that may stay the same for years on end. In fact, sometimes the domestic worker may find that her salary has actually decreased because the employer says she can't afford it! Most of all a garment worker has a freedom and dignity that no domestic worker can even dream of.
So while most employers and their families will sleep in or watch a movie on DVD or visit friends and relatives or have them over for a visit, home workers all over Bangladesh will be slogging away at their everyday, thankless tasks.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009