Slavery, diplomatic style -- By Khalid Hasan Back   Home  
Barely dressed, he ran out on naked feet from the stately residence in the diplomatic enclave of the city of Ottawa on a bitterly old snowy night, unmindful of the frozen ground. He was screaming. Had it been Pakistan, he could have gone on running as nobody would have paid him the least attention, but this was Canada.

Before long, he was spotted by a police cruiser, stopped, taken in and moved to a hospital where he was pronounced safe though not too far from hypothermia. They also found that the man who spoke little English was confused and incoherent to the point of being insane.

This happened many years ago. The man was a Pakistani and served in the ambassador's household. Long work hours, lack of freedom, lack of company, lack of money, lack of proper food and constant tongue lashings had finally taken their toll and the man who had arrived happily not long before looking forward to the good life in North America had suffered a breakdown. He was bundled home and the matter was hushed up, and with it, yet another case of diplomatic slavery.

Some years ago, the domestic servant of an Asian World Bank officer went berserk because of unremitting ill treatment and abuse. One day, he picked up a kitchen knife and killed the mistress of the house. He received a light sentence on the basis of extenuating circumstances. No normal human being could be subjected to such treatment and hope to retain his sanity. In one incident, an Asian diplomat's imperious and foul-mouthed wife in Washington, in a bout of ill temper that was her hallmark, had ordered her maid, a simple village woman, to get out of the house in the middle of the night. Another Asian cab driver had taken pity on her and put her up till she had found a more humane employer.

Abuse of diplomatic privileges is not confined to Indians and Pakistanis. However, the worst offenders by and large are the privileged ones from the so-called Third World whose elite have about as much love for the huddled masses as Josef Stalin had for civil liberties. In early June this year, Human Rights Watch produced a stunning report that should put the perpetrators of these unspeakable cruelties and indignities to shame but I fear no such thing will happen because those who commit such acts are already beyond shame.

Domestic workers come to the United Sates on special visas and, ironically, despite the abusive treatment, they are often reluctant to leave their employers or file legal complaints to defend their rights because of fear of reprisals at home, cultural and social isolation, ignorance of US laws, lack of local friends or contacts, the difficulty of finding another job and fear of losing their legal immigration status. The inability to speak English is also a major factor. But nothing illustrates the conditions in which many of these domestic workers live better than the narrative accounts provided by some of them to Human Rights Watch. Most are employed by diplomats but there are also those who are sponsored by American citizens.

Here is Fariba (Farida?) Ahmed from Bangladesh who was employed by an Arab diplomat working at the UN. She was paid only $100 a month but she never saw that money because it was sent directly to her husband back home. She performed all the housework besides caring for two children, a four-year old and an infant, seven days a week. She never got a day off and she worked an average of 14 hours per day, from six in the morning to 10 at night. Her passport had been confiscated at the airport by her employer on arrival.

She was not allowed to leave the apartment by herself. She went out of that apartment only twice in nine months, both times to accompany the diplomat's wife on her shopping trips. She said the family "humiliated me and made me feel inhuman", going on vacation without leaving her money for food. She was only allowed to eat leftovers. She was assaulted by the diplomat's wife twice. Once she hit her with the glass she had brought to the table because it was the wrong one.

Once she was pushed while she was cooking which caused her to burn her arm. In the end, she was rescued by a fellow Bengali who phoned a newspaper. A case was filed against the diplomat and an out-of-court settlement made. The diplomat pleaded immunity because of who he was.

Another case involved a Filipina by the name of Malika Jamisola who was brought over by a US citizen. She described for Human Rights Watch her typical workday. She rose early to prepare the couple's three children, aged six, nine and 13, for school, including making a different breakfast for each child. During the day, she cleaned the house, washed dishes, did laundry, made beds, dusted and vacuumed. At 3 p.m., the youngest girl returned from school and Malika had to play with her. She then prepared dinner, set the table, cleared it after everybody had eaten, cleaned the kitchen and washed the dishes.

Though she prepared the food, she was only allowed to eat a limited amount. She could not serve herself. Food was ladled out to her as if she was a dog. She also had to put the three children to bed and if the master was going on a trip the next day, she had to stay up and iron his clothes. If the couple went out for the evening, she had to stay awake, no matter at what hour they returned. She went grocery shopping three times a week, riding five or six miles to the store on an old bicycle.

She was also responsible for raking leaves, watering the garden, shovelling the snow and washing the car twice a month. Her hours and work schedule remained unchanged on Saturdays though the children were at home. Nobody helped her. She had Sunday off but had to return home by 7 p.m. She was not allowed to use the phone even to make local calls and could only leave the house during the week if she was going on a work-related errand. She made less than $2.50 an hour.

To prove that not all beasts are of non-European origin, here is the story of a Peruvian domestic employed by a European diplomat. Once the diplomat came home and without provocation began to yell at her, calling her "stupid", a" piece of trash" and "from the street". Then, the Peruvian woman told Human Rights Watch, "he raised his hand to hit me on the head but I turned and his hand came down on the table". He then ordered her out of the house. His wife joined him, encouraging him to grab her arm and throw her and her belongings into the street.

She begged the diplomat not to force her out because she had nowhere to go in the cold, snowy February night. He told her he was a diplomat and could do whatever he wanted with her because the US justice system could not touch him. Eventually, he relented and she stayed on for another two months before quitting.

Why doesn't the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, instead of issuing high-sounding statements from time to time, produce a report on the inhuman treatment of domestic servants in Pakistan? It may not earn the Commission's leadership any column inches in newspapers but it will do their souls - and ours - a lot of good.
This article was published in Pakistan newspaper, Dawn. I remember some experiences I faced in Canada while reading this article. Yes living in a new country with no known person and with unknown people on their mercy is a nightmare.