| 1182 words

I’m not sure how familiar most people are with life in low income countries. Probably a lot less than they really should be. Traveling to different places to see how others live can shock you out of your regular routines and ways of seeing the world. It’s a common story - an otherwise sheltered and naive foreigner will have their eyes opened by traveling to the third world and seeing how the rest of the planet lives. Such experiences shouldn’t be used for entertainment or shock value (which they sometimes are), but seeing all colors of life can certainly help people grow.

One of the biggest things you have to adjust to, especially if you’re used to living in the relatively egalitarian societies of the west, is the fact that labour is so cheap. This is the root economic cause that is responsible for so many of the otherwise hard to understand conditions in developing countries.

When paying for another human to labour on your behalf is the cheapest option, there are a whole lot of things that change. Instead of driving yourself around, might as well hire a full time driver. Any housework or chores at home might as well be handled by a full time maid or nanny. Their time is so cheap might as well hire them to be live in so they’re available 24/7. Any seemingly luxury experiences that are dependent on good service become ultra nice and ultra cheap; getting a haircut or tailored clothing or a catered meal all become extremely affordable relative to their price in developed countries.

The other side of this coin is that labour may be cheap, but that also means you don’t get paid much for your labour. It makes things that are not labour dependent like technology much more expensive relatively. It leads to these seemingly incongruous situations where you can be waited on hand and foot, your every need taken care of, eat delicious food cooked specifically for you by a team of brilliant chefs, but the pipes are still leaky and the AC isn’t running and it’s hard to afford many mundane snacks and luxuries. Some countries are better at this part, but in places like Pakistan there are still huge economic difficulties when it comes to paying for anything advanced.

I think there’s this idea that takes a lot of getting used to, about the difference in hierarchy in poor countries like that. It’s the idea of class, of being better or worse than someone. In the west, the labour class is able to tell itself that it’s just as good as the people it’s serving; that class doesn’t exist. That the Uber driver or waiter serving you might be making a specific economic transaction, but they’re not by any means inferior. Their kids will go to the same school as your kids; you can imagine that if anyone works hard enough, even a lowly taxi driver or waiter, they can become as rich as you or even richer.

This is not really how things work in poor countries, where the labour class is much more impoverished relative to rich countries. When you have a live in maid or driver, someone at your beck and call 24 hours a day, who’s only task is to follow your instructions; well I find that a lot harder to wrap my head around. There’s no simple fantasy you can envision about equality or classlessness because where does it end for these people. For a lot of them, they bring their young children to help them with the job instead of going to school. The sheer disparity between the kind of life we live and how much we are paying them, despite existing right next to each other in the same house, boggles the mind. It’s impossible to tell yourself that there’s no difference between you and them; that they might someday have a position like yours with maids of their own.

Of course everything I’ve said so far comes with a large caveat that it only applies if you’re comparing the average lifestyle in a rich country to the lifestyle that same western income would buy in a poor country. The majority of people in poor countries don’t have this experience, simply because the majority cannot afford to live like this. It’s an experience saved solely for those privileged few who fly in to visit from the west, or who make incredible amounts of money (likely by working somewhere outside their home country). Of all the very wealthy people, I always wonder if they got their riches by working hard, or from corruption, or whether it’s just luck by leaving the country and coming back later. Is it even possible to work hard enough to rise to the top in a country like that, the way that people do in the West? It didn’t seem like many of our maids would have that opportunity so I’m not sure.

The other very crucial thing to note, however, is that the poorest citizens don’t seem to be very anguished over their situation. Of course nobody would choose to be poor, but they seem to be ok with the extreme inequality they witness. Apparently getting hired as a maid, in a good stable position with regular pay, can pay a decent salary. That people are just happy with what they’ve been given.

I don’t want to disparage other people’s situations and if they’re happy that’s wonderful for them. However in my opinion a whole bunch of that story sounds like what all the employers tell themselves to cope with moral complexities of living such lavish lives next to people who are so incredibly poor. Sure it pays a decent salary and it’s better than the alternative, but how could any labourer in that situation not be disgusted at the incredible wealth and excess people like me live in. Especially when there is so much poverty and suffering often times literally just out the window. Can you imagine working for a rich family, seeing them not finish their food or run out of room for their clothes, and then go home and see others like you work 12 hours a day and still be unable to feed their babies. Surely it must take a mental toll.

Then again. Maybe they are really happy. People need remarkably little to live happy lives, and if their salary can pay for food and shelter then maybe they can handle the rest. I guess what I personally find the hardest to think about is the adjacency of it, of putting extremely poor labourer maids in a house full of rich people and trying to imagine what they must think. Even if they most of them are content with their situation, I suppose perhaps I’ve been too addled by my western ways to easily accept that.