Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Equality Under the Law?

A Hollywood couple were found guilty today of “modern day slavery” after vicious maltreatment of their Filipino maid Nena Ruiz. Ruiz, an illegal immigrant, was threatened with deportation if she complained about her violent treatment and lack of wages, food or accommodation. It is only right that her abusers were punished for their vicious treatment. Yet, in what can only be explained by the court’s blatant sexism, the wife, Elizabeth Jackson, was sentenced to three years for ‘forced labour’, while her husband, James, was found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘alien harbouring’ and given 200 hours of community service. The details of the case are sketchy in newspaper reports, but, even if we assume that James worked a lot and Elizabeth was the main tormenter, how does the court explain such a huge difference in both the classification of the crime and the punishment.

Do we seriously believe that James Jackson was oblivious to his wife’s treatment of their maid? One of the instances alleged was that Ruiz was forced to sleep in a dog-basket. Do we believe that James failed to notice this every night? Do we believe that he did not know his maid worked 18 hour days/ every day of the year? Did he fail to notice that no wages were being paid to his maid? Did he ever question his wife’s treatment of his maid? Has he no responsibility whatsoever for what went on in their home? Undoubtedly Elizabeth Jackson is guilty of abuse and was probably the main abuser, yet, at a minimum, James Jackson benefited from the forced labour of his slave and failed in his responsibility as an employer (and as a human being). How does a charge of ‘alien harbouring’ and community service reflect his culpability in this crime?

The only explanation for the significantly different sentences imposed on the Jacksons is their gender. The association of women with the household, it appears, ensures that men have no responsibility for what goes on in them. The same behaviour that is vilified in the female sex is ignored when performed by a man. If women and men truly have equality under the law then it should be manifested in the same punishments for the same crimes.

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