The invisible workforce

During the Prophet’s (PBUH) era and in the state of Medina, the most attractive characteristic of the Islamic state was unconditional love and respect for minority citizens by Muslims. The Prophet (PBUH) had trained and emphasised to his followers of the rights of minorities in the Muslim state.

The recent death of Irfan Masih is proof of a long standing fact in our society that the law is no longer upheld but is taken into the hands of individuals who mutate and corrupt the law and Holy Quran according to their convenience. What is devastating in the situation of what happened in the hospital, where Masih was taken and refused treatment, was that it was not the only a violation of his rights by the doctor who chose not to treat him, but it was a wrong that we as a society committed towards him by reducing him and his like to the kind of work that lead to his death.

Ever since one can remember, we Pakistanis have made it a cultural norm to treat minorities as a lower class, some even as ‘untouchables’. This division has not only been engrained into our minds but has also found a way to seep into the nurturing of future generations to come. What we chose to ignore is that this division, like many others, is sanctioned neither by law nor by religion.

We have reduced the minorities to labour activities that we otherwise do not prefer to do ourselves. During the Prophet’s time, there were no such directions from the state to compel non-Muslims for dirty work whereas it’s been said by the Prophet that Muslims should do their own work if and when Allah has made them capable enough to.

One can see that in Europe and Scandinavian countries Pakistanis, even Pakistani Muslims, are often seen doing such work without hesitation. They are employed as sweepers, cleaners, garbage collectors etc. Unfortunately in the sub-continent it has become a no-go area for Muslims and minorities are being compelled to do such work.

What become contentious is that in Pakistan under no law are such jobs allocated specifically to minorities. It is seen that even in advertisements for job openings, the eligibility criteria is sometimes shortlisted to Christians, if not this then reference is made towards Christian minorities. This becomes a grave discrimination against Christians, which not only deeply ignores the colour white in our flag and everything its stands for, but it also goes severely against the teachings of Islam for tolerance, equality and mercy.

What is more inhumane is that municipalities have no arrangement for labourers who work in these dangerous conditions. Minorities are already taking the blow by being socially compelled to do work that not only endangers their health but also does not provide them with sufficient safeguards against these hazards. We as a society guard ourselves against this toxic and hazardous working environment by compelling the lower minorities to do such work, particularly Christians. They are forced to commit to such labour due to their economic status. The truth is that this discriminatory mind set of our society has never given them the chance to lift their status up the socio-economic ladder. What becomes sadder is that the authorities responsible for such work and their employers do not even provide them with basic safety gear such as helmets, gas masks, rubber gloves and other protective gears etc.

This social norm that we have engrained into ourselves, that those who are fewer-than-us Muslims living in our country, only to maintain our clean lifestyle, are to do our dirty work resulting in inequality and a hazardous life with no protection of their rights, is against both Islam and our country’s Constitution. Article 25 grants the fundamental right of Equality of citizens stating: “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” Article 36 makes obligatory the Protection of minorities; it states, “The State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities”

We further discriminate against these minorities to the extent that their well-being is endangered as guaranteed in Article 38 of our Constitution .It’s also a violation of The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1969 and specially, Christian employments into the cleaning sector of our country, and the conditions this ‘invisible workforce’ is employed into is tantamount to the 1956 ILO Convention.

The death of Irfan Masih should thus be treated as wake-up call for our Islamic scholars, teachers and parents to start grooming our new generation with sense of responsibility and start following the proper Islamic way of life that endorses peace, tolerance and equality. It is high time and that we in our individual capacities start taking the minorities as equal humans and stop their reduction to a brigade of ‘invisible workers’ due to the negligence and discrimination diverted towards them. The Council of Islamic ideology, National Commission for Human Rights and Supreme Court of Pakistan as custodian of our Constitution should provide a protective document to these minorities, if the state is not interested to protect their rights.


The author is former judge, lawyer and President of Centre for Rule of Law Pakistan.

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