Less than Human
We Bangalis pride ourselves on our culture, traditions and heritage. Rightly so; the immense intellectual and artistic contributions Bangalis have made to South Asian culture (and beyond) are widely-recognised. In fact, occasionally people are fond of pointing out that Bangalis can sometimes be a little arrogant about how much more intelligent and "civilised" we are, than others from this region! However, one issue that severely undermines our claims to greater sophistication is our treatment of our employees, particularly domestic staff.
Undoubtedly, in earlier, more feudal days, class distinctions in Bangladesh were more pronounced. Individuals were expected to know their place, and not to get ideas "above their station". However, difficult as the lives of household staff may have been in those days, they did have certain rights. They could expect their employers to help them in bad times, and generally take a degree of responsibility for their well-being. With the fragmentation of that system, social changes have undoubtedly brought new opportunities for some of those belonging to less-privileged segments of society. However, that earlier sense of responsibility that people had for their employees has also been eroded.
Nowadays, one can scarcely open a newspaper without reading some truly horrific story about someone assaulting - or even, with alarming frequency - murdering one of their domestic staff. The age of the person has little relevance, as does any other aspect of their personality. Clearly, working as a domestic in Dhaka, for example, has turned into some kind of lottery - who your employer is has literally become a matter of life and death.
The recent story of the eight-year old girl, who was battered to death with a rolling pin, is just one example. How many of these stories have we heard in the last year alone? We hear these stories with the same dreadful, monotonous regularity as we hear stories about children being sexually molested, or young girls and women being harassed, raped or killed.
I try to take heart from the fact that most decent, compassionate people that I know are as appalled by these horrific crimes as I am. But nobody seems to know what to do. And things seem to be getting worse.
It is only the more extreme cases that make the news (not even the headline news, mind you). There are a million small cruelties that take place every day in homes across Bangladesh that we never even hear about. And sometimes, even when they are happening before our eyes, we do not recognise them for what they are.
How many times have you been in a restaurant, and seen a family enjoying themselves? And how many times have you noticed a small, sometimes ill-dressed figure - a woman or a child - standing awkwardly by the side of the table? This is the domestic who has been dragged into a public place, to look after a child, so that a family's enjoyment is not hampered in any way.
I find it difficult to understand why parents or other family members cannot, for the duration of a restaurant meal, manage to look after those children. After all, surely this is part and parcel of parenting? And surely it is a natural part of family life to spend time with each other, without having this wraith-like figure standing on the sidelines? Apart from anything else, if someone really feels that they must take their child-carer to a restaurant with them, could they not at least allow them to sit down, and perhaps even give them something to eat?!
If that is the way that we treat our household staff in the public sphere, then I really wonder how we treat them when no one is looking! Like almost everyone else reading this, I grew up with domestic staff, who did much of the work in our household. Luckily, my parents had fairly strict rules about how we were allowed to behave with them i.e. they were adults, whom we could not misbehave with - let alone strike - without expecting parental repercussions. Needless to say, that kept us in line.
We too often forget that illiteracy should not be confused with inferiority. A family friend's ayah once explained to me why the little girl she was looking after was so well behaved. She said, "She never screams or hits, because she has never seen anyone do that. I have never behaved like that with them, so they don't behave that way with anyone else." I have to admit, I was quite impressed by the logic.
In sharp contrast was an incident when, as a teenager, I was visiting a friend. They had a 10-year-old domestic. That day, when she brought us some tea and snacks, dwarfed by the rather large tray she was carrying, I held my breath for fear that she would drop something. Somehow she managed to get the tray onto the table without spilling anything, but a small amount of tea had slopped into the saucer from one of the cups.
To my shock, my friend slapped her, ordering her make fresh tea. Although I remonstrated with my friend, to my eternal shame I did not challenge her behaviour more robustly, nor have I ever explained to her how unpleasant I found her behaviour with that child, who was a good five years younger than us. On subsequent occasions, observing how her mother - an otherwise generous and pleasant person - behaved with her staff, I realised where she had learnt this. Yet by contrast, her younger sister - brought up by the same parents - was much kinder. And as I was to find out many years later, was equally repulsed by her sister's behaviour.
And this brings me to my final point. Many of us would like to see these issues tackled, but don't know what to do about it; least of all, when it all seems too large and complex for us to influence on an individual level. How can we prevent people from mistreating their employees, whether by dragging them into restaurants where they are made to stand and feeling ill-at-ease, or by the more direct method of beatings and verbal abuse?
I don't have the answers to that question, but I do believe that we all make choices about our behaviour. While many of us may be horrified, or at the very least disturbed, by the kind of treatment that is regularly meted out to domestic staff, we often end up ignoring or condoning such behaviour. To do otherwise, is complicated, challenging and potentially embarrassing.
But, the fact is, the only way that things are going to change, is if we can bring ourselves to challenge the status quo. And that means initiating discussions - however difficult and potentially embarrassing - with those of our friends, family and acquaintances whom we see behaving in this way. For each time we turn away, and let these things happen, we are contributing to the problem. So next time there is an item in the paper about some child domestic being tortured, molested or battered to death, we can't say, "It's a terrible thing, but it's nothing to do with me".
(R) thedailystar.net 2005