Do you consider yourself a respecter of human rights and vocal champion of those whose rights are trampled upon? OK, let’s not get ahead of the story – do you consider yourself a decent human being?
Most of us would answer ‘yes’ to these questions with the same unthinking alacrity with which we ignore the red flags that should tell us something is not right.
I remember knocking on a door in Manama for directions once and being met by a young domestic helper rushing out with a tray of tea which she spilt on me.
I was so taken with indignation at the tea stains on my saree that it was only much later that the wobbly tiredness on her face registered on my conscience.
And, what about the many times we order party fare from our favourite restaurants? Those speedy men in their flying (two-wheeler) machines who bring you your biryani and shawarma put in the industry standard of 16 to 18 gruelling hours to reach your goods to you and often get bawled at for being 10 minutes late or bringing the wrong order packed by the restaurant.
Most of these deliverymen are contract workers employed by micro-firms which lease their services to the big boys of the trade.
By the time the original pay packet is divided between the maze of contractors and sub-contractors, the delivery man gets the bare minimum – often about BD100.
They are expected to pad this out with the tips that they receive. That’s outrageous, considering that the delivery services hack a hefty commission from participating outlets and from every delivery.
All that money clearly generates good profits since the parent company only updates the app and manages the back office and the actual delivery and fleet-maintenance is outsourced. So why can’t the foot-soldiers be given more decent wages and working conditions?
Worse, there is no accountability for worker welfare because of the layers of contracts. Living conditions for these delivery men are often dire. I once saw a ramshackle villa in a Manama lane with broken roof shingles and boarded windows. Just when I thought the house was up for demolition, I noticed that the tiny yard in the back was criss-crossed with washing lines on which hung tens of recognisable uniforms of a popular delivery service. That meant at least 15 men lived in this three-bedroom villa.
There is also no safety net of health checks or insurance.
Overworked and often bone-tired, these men teeter at great speed across highways and streets at all hours. The insider story is that accidents, injuries and down time are deducted from the meagre pay that they earn which makes them reluctant to report them.
We live in a lop-sided world where we are more concerned about upgrading the quality of our pizza toppings than about the working conditions of the people who prepare and deliver them to us.
Remember the 1980s when a consumer movement was started to hold the fashion industry accountable for the sweat-shop work environment in garment factories? At first scoffed at, the movement revolutionised the industry and vastly improved the lives of the factory workers, even eliminating child labour in many instances.
We must look seriously at the way our unseeing patronage of these services is affecting the quality of life for thousands of people.
Just a knee-jerk generous tip will not help, although it is welcome. Let us pledge to question and hold the employers responsible for the well-being of the minions who make the machine tick.