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Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Sweeping Injustice

Christian Sanitation worker in Pakistan :

A recent article in the Christian Post contained some insights into the life of a great many Pakistani Christians - those who work as street sweepers and sanitation workers.
It deals with several incidents we have covered before, but gives some general detail that highlights the situation of a large number of Christians in Pakistan. It shows the contempt for Pakistani Christians by many of the majority population.
For instance, in 2009 an incident with a Christian bus driver called Sardar Masih in a village just south of Kasur on the border with India led to the whole Christian community having to flee. He asked Muhammad Hussein to move his motorbike which he had left in the middle of the road. Hussein refused, asking how could a 'Chuhra' (sweeper) give him an order. The argument grew into a brawl between two families, and (surprise, surprise) the Muslims accused the Christians of committing blasphemy. The entire Christian population of the village had to flee.
Earlier this year, we reported on another incident in which a Christian street cleaner was stabbed to death by a Muslim shopkeeper with the words 'How dare a Chuhra argue with me?' This was after telling the sweeper, Abbas Masih, to pick up the dead leaves and flowers outside his flower shop, and Masih had said he would do it in a minute after finishing off the other end of the street. The shopkeeper stabbed him in the heart, and he died on the way to hospital. The police only filed a First report on the case after Christian leaders protested.
Masih worked for Solid Waste Management for 16 years, but his family got no compensation, even though he should have been entitled to it by law. Why? Well, temporary workers don't get paid holidays, no benefits, no rights to health care etc. And Masih was a 'temporary worker' because SWM treats its Christian employees as temporary workers by firing them and rehiring them every 88 days. His family were too afraid to file a complaint because of the police notoriety for harrassing and laying false charges against Christians who come to them with complaints such as these. They are too poor to hire a lawyer.
Although Christians make up about 2 to 2.5% of the population, 90% of sewerage workers and an even higher percentage of street cleaners are Christian, trapped in a cycle of dangerous and life threatening jobs that pay a pittance, long hours, no pensions and no health care or compensation for families because their employees won't hire them as permanent workers (which would count as civil servants and would mean entitlement to job-related healthcare and other benefits). They work until they are too ill or old and feeble to work and are then cast off. Sewerage workers often die because of toxic gasses in manholes or because they are sent down to unblock sewers and the sudden rush of sewerage after they have freed a blockage can sweep them to their deaths, drowning them in a flood of shit, an apt metaphor for how Pakistani society views and treats these Christians.
The director of SWM had promised to put 400 Christian employees on full benefits, but reneged on that promise. When worker Anayat Masih Sahotra, a labour leader with 26 years service for the company, complained and organised a protest against such discrimination, he was suspended under baseless charges of forgery. He again protested and was told by the director :

'I know you low-born Christian Chuhras, and I know how to deal with you'

a phrase that aptly sums up attitudes to Christians.
Then a lower level official of the firm invited Sahotra to visit for tea, and then had the police burst in and arrest him for 'intimidating' the deputy. All this, of course, was to intimidate him into dropping his demand for fair rights for Christian workers.

Street cleaners, for example, work from 4am to 7pm, and earn $100 a month, so they have no other opportunity for finding other part time jobs, trapping them and their children into poverty, because they also can't afford education for their children, who then also become sweepers. In fact job adverts for sweeper jobs often specify non-Muslims only, and some even say Christian only.

The article goes on to point out that this attitude is a combination of Hindu caste notions where the Dalits or Untouchables were eternally seen as despicable and dirty (a great deal of Christian sweepers are from families of Dalits who converted in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, in part to get away from such prejudice) which has merged since the formation of Pakistan with Muslim notions of 'uncleanness' which is meant to be a temporary state (although across the Muslim world there is an increasing notion that Christians and 'infidels' are permanently unclean) and conspires with the dirty jobs Christians are trapped in to mean that in essence a religious-based caste system continues in Pakistan. There is no modern sanitation system in Pakistan, so Christians are forced to work by hand in a dirty and unhealthy job but are denied the healthcare rights as employees that they should have.

A number of blasphemy cases stem from such 'caste-but-really religion'-based discrimination, including most famously that of Asia Bibi, where the whole incident started when Muslim co-workers rejected her offer of water to drink because her 'unclean Christian' hands had contaminated it

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