Uniforms as Socialized Prisons


A while ago, I took a flight from Islamabad to Karachi. As I got out of the Arrival Lounge, I booked a cab from one of the half-dozen cab companies at the Karachi Airport. As I made the booking, a porter registered with the cab company came up to me, took my luggage and escorted me to the cab. This is a routine you follow whenever you book a cab at the airport these days. As I walked towards the cab with the porter ahead of me, I noticed something disturbing. The porter was wearing a dull orange jumpsuit and it very closely resembled the infamous orange jumpsuit worn by inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The orange jumpsuit has become a symbol of illegal detention and torture carried out at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and other illegal detention and torture facilities elsewhere. As we reached the cab, the porter loaded my luggage in the cab and asked me for a tip. I gave him some money and started my journey back home.

“My interaction with the porter was brief, impersonal and I wouldn’t recognize him if I met him again.”

My interaction with the porter was brief, impersonal and I wouldn’t recognize him if I met him again. That porter and so many people like him have been assigned roles in society; roles that make us oblivious to their person. The porter was there to provide a service, to load my luggage in the cab. I suspect the company does not pay much, if anything at all, to the porter for his services. His major source of income from this job would be the tip he collects from customers. Some customers don’t use the porter and lift their own luggage. Some others use the porter but don’t tip them; they say that the porter’s services are paid for in the money they pay to the company. Others use the porter very reluctantly; there is no need to employ a person to lift your luggage for 40-50 paces but these customers do tip them anyway. The porter is merely dependent on the generosity of the customer to pay him and he can’t do much except haggle the customer for the tip if the customer refuses to pay.

One can argue that the porter is free not to become a porter if he does not like the way this business works. The porter one would say is providing a service for a demand and is being paid for that service. But the porter is actually involved in a very unequal exchange relationship. He could be vilified, taunted, mistreated by his customers and he couldn’t do much about it. It is as if he has surrendered his person, his being so that he can somehow make money for sustenance. The porter is just one example from our everyday life that fits this description. The private guards, who man the entrance of shopping malls, banks etc work in extremely harsh conditions, are underpaid, have little or no insurance and have no recourse if the customers they are paid to serve misbehave with them. Janitors who work in offices or shopping malls find themselves in similar situations.

“It is as if we as a society have socialized prisons in the form of uniforms which define who is a porter, a guard, a janitor and the treatment that should be accorded to such people”

These porters, guards, janitors are made to wear uniforms so that customers may be able to identify them. When a customer sees a person wearing the uniform of a porter/guard/janitor, s/he knows that this uniform-wearing person is there to serve him/her. In the mind of the customer, the person wearing the uniform ceases to exist; what registers is only the uniform. Customers see uniforms, demand services from the uniforms and move on. The person wearing the uniform is imprisoned inside it; unable to break free from his dismal economic condition due to his low-paying job, stuck in his social condition consequently. The uniform may change bodies but whoever wears it is subjected to the same maltreatment. It is as if we as a society have socialized prisons in the form of uniforms which define who is a porter, a guard, a janitor and the treatment that should be accorded to such people. These people might not be physically imprisoned and tortured like the Guantanamo Bay inmates but their roles in society imprison them to lower economic and social status; their uniforms merely justifying the torture they are subjected to.

6 Responses to “Uniforms as Socialized Prisons”
  1. Sarah says:

    Ok to some extent i agree..imagine yourself at being a store where you need help..what is that u do spontaneously…look for a uniform right..that’s true for the airport too…yes the uniforms can be changed for better…they need not be orange or some color of the sort…we can print visibly on them…according to me the issue really here is the treatment meted out to them…and we as a society unconsciously think of the other person as our slave and treat him accordingly…we look up to the filthy rich.. don’t we?? and yes they are very underpaid because we consider the work they do as menial..although it should be the way round because we would never want to do that work..so i think its just our attitude that really needs to change and i am sure things will change for the better.

  2. Moaiz says:

    Sarah, the jobs they do and their social status brings social and economic exploitation and not the uniform. I have used the prison hyperbole to emphasize that porters, janitors are trapped in a bad economic/social condition and their situation is just like that of a prisoner. Prisoners are not free men (women), similarly porters,janitors etc are also not free men (women). The dearth of upward economic and social mobility opportunities in our society ensures that they remain trapped in their situation. Of course this is just one way to look at their situation, there can numerous other ways to conceptualize it. Yes, we look up to the rich and treat the poor with contempt. Our attitudes need to change but the poor can’t wait for a charitable change of heart of the rich. I m hopeful that things will change for the better but for that the poor will have to demand their rights as opposed to wait for the rich to change their attitude. I appreciate your comments and feedback. Thank you.

  3. Very interesting post! It is kind of you to share.

  4. Steve Collins says:

    Very interesting one. Great job. writing

  5. I believe that this topic can affect how people behave in prison and greatly change their lives there.

  6. I don’t think that uniform is a really bad idea because all the people are separated into some groups in one way or another.

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