Monday, 15 August 2016

Coercion inside the home

by Haris Gazdar and Ayesha Khan

Domestic workers in the 14th century
Photo credit: Wikipedia commons

Bonded labour constitutes one of the gravest violations of individual human rights. It is perceived — both at the popular level, as well as among legislators and the judiciary — as akin to slavery. Yet, bonded labour often comes disguised in a web of legitimate ‘voluntary’ economic transactions mediated through social control. Haris Gazdar and Ayesha Khan explored bonded labour in domestic work and begging in a chapter in the book ‘Bonded Labour in Pakistan’. The book is edited by Ayaz Qureshi and Ali Khan and published by the Oxford University Press. An excerpt of the chapter was recently featured in Dawn’s Books and Authors. An even shorter version with a focus on rural domestic work is reproduced here.

A common view on bonded labour is that it is a system based on the interlocking of labour and credit arrangements. In addition to the transaction in the labour market, a worker also transacts with the employer on the credit market, repaying the debt by working for the creditor. The employercreditor enjoys monopolistic power vis-a-vis the workerborrower and thus is able to impose exploitative terms and conditions in both transactions. The worker is considered a bonded labourer if the terms faced on either or both markets are extraordinarily exploitative, and allow no exit from either or both sets of contracts. This abstract model of bonded labour finds an apparently straightforward empirical counterpart in the peshgi system that prevails in many informally organised sectors in Pakistan. In the peshgi, or advance payment, system, a workerborrower contracts a cash or kind advance — in the case of agricultural tenants the advance is in the form of a production credit — from the employercreditor. The workerborrower then works on a piece-rate or wage rate basis, and a part (in some cases all) of his earnings goes to repay the advance. The workerborrower cannot change employers or locations as long as the loan remains unpaid unless the new employer takes over the loan, thereby becoming the creditor. The role of the peshgi system is thought to be crucial in the understanding of bonded labour in Pakistan. This chapter shows that the peshgi system exists in domestic service but not in begging. Cases of coercive peshgi contracts in the domestic work sector between employers and employees in rural areas, and between urban employers and employees of a common rural background are presented in some detail. The chapter argues that although labour bonding through peshgi is absent in the begging sector, some labour arrangements come very close to outright slavery.
The data was collected by using a number of qualitative research tools including community profiling, key informant interviews, informal and formal interviews, case studies, and observations. The geographic focus of the study were the districts of Lahore and Sargodha in Punjab, and Karachi and Sanghar in Sindh, and the fieldwork was carried out between December 2002 to January 2003.
Domestic work is often regarded as a sector in which workers are highly vulnerable to coercion and abuse. Unlike work that takes place in a recognised ‘workplace’ environment, domestic service occurs in an environment that is likely to be marked by highly personalised relations and extraordinary dependence between employer and employee. Formal laws as well as informal social norms governing employer-employee relations may have less significance than traditional and familial norms of behaviour.
The Pakistani state is unable to implement existing labour legislation in the formal sectors and lacks the will and ability to monitor conditions in the informal sectors that are well beyond its current reach. Moreover, the private home is believed to be a female sphere, true to the structure of a deeply patriarchal state and society. The public sphere is male-dominated and the private sphere the realm of the female so it is inappropriate and undesirable for the former to investigate the latter’s functioning too closely. Therefore, the domestic service sector remains largely undocumented and an informal part of the economy. Domestic work is performed by men, women, or children. It includes tasks like gardening, guard duty, driving, cooking, serving meals, cleaning, dishwashing, clothes washing, sweeping, dusting, ironing, childcare, massaging. Domestic service is availed by the elite of a given community, be it a village, town, or urban neighbourhood, and the service providers are among the poorest and most vulnerable in rural and urban society. The contractual agreement between the employer and the employee or his/her family is often unwritten, nonbinding, and heavily biased in favour of the employer.
The labour arrangements in this sector vary according to rural and urban settings and the backgrounds of the employers and workers. The caste and class dimension play an important role in shaping the labour arrangements for both rural and urban domestic workers. Whereas this is true for urban-based domestic workers to some extent, in rural settings the workers have very little opportunity to explore other income generating strategies or to change their employer in case of extreme exploitation.
In rural areas, domestic servants come from a castebased or classbased community of agricultural workers who are dependent on their landlord. Exploitation of the workers stems from the absolute power and control wielded by the landlord. Sometimes, caste affiliations with the type of labour one is required to provide are hard to shed even after gaining employment in the government sector. For example; a doctor in Shahdadpur had a government job in the district health office. He was also a local landlord. He used another low ranking government employee, who came from a low caste in his village, as his personal servant. They both drew their salaries from the government, but neither of them performed their official duties.
Workers in these situations do not receive adequate remuneration for their domestic work to pay off their debt. They are, therefore, not free to choose their employers. They may be bought and sold by way of landlords assuming the loan arrangements from one another, without their participation in the decision. Debts are accumulated on the workers because of their need to borrow from the landlords on occasions like marriages.
The chapter was based on the project ‘Rapid Assessments of Bonded Labour’ completed by the Collective team in 2003. The project examined bonded labour in five sectors: construction, tanneries, glass-bangle making, domestic service and begging.