New protections for domestic workers in Pakistan
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), around 8.5 million people in Pakistan – mostly women and children – are employed as domestic workers in households. In the midst of poverty, illiteracy and lack of job opportunities, many are left with no choice but to seek employment in others’ homes as cleaners, caregivers, cooks, maids, etc. Domestic work across the world is characterized as one of the occupations with the worst quality of employment according to the ILO– with long workdays, low pay and limited social protection, and in Pakistan limited legal regulation.
Horrific tales of violence particularly against children employed as domestic help in households have come to the fore in the recent past. Last year, 16-year old Uzma was ruthlessly murdered in the eastern city of Lahore by her employers for having eaten a piece of meat; her body was later found dumped in a canal. The gruesome torture of 10-year old housemaid Tayyaba by an additional district and sessions judge and his wife in the capital Islamabad made headlines in 2016, leading to condemnation across the board and the eventual conviction of her employers. That Tayyaba’s father later attempted to have the charges dropped, following an “agreement” with his child’s aggressors, evidences the asymmetrical power structures, exploitation and vulnerability that characterizes domestic work in Pakistan.
The Punjab Assembly, after commendable guidance and some pushing from the Lahore High Court, passed the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 in January last year. The Act brings employment in the hitherto unregulated domestic sphere within the ambit of the law – mandating the registration of domestic workers and employees with the Punjab Employees Social Security Institution (PESSI), and necessitating the issuance of a letter of employment specifying the nature of work and wages.
According to a 2019 report issued by the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, over 29 percent of women aged between 15-64 years in Punjab were working as unpaid domestic help.
For Pakistan’s most populous province, the Act prescribes a minimum wage for domestic workers, to be determined and announced on a yearly basis by the Minimum Wage Board– a crucial provision given that many domestic workers are bound to unpaid work, often endlessly striving to pay off an insurmountable debt taken in times of desperation. According to a 2019 report issued by the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, over 29 percent of women aged between 15-64 years in Punjab were working as unpaid domestic help. Significantly, the Act prohibits the employment of children below 15 years of age – an arbitrary age-limit, since Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan mandates compulsory education for all children up till the age of 16. Given that many poor families survive on income earned by minor children, the 15-year age limit may itself be an ambitious target to implement.
The Act stipulates a maximum 8-hour workday and a weekly holiday, a provision which if implemented could address the predicament of the countless workers who are made to work endless hours without rest or due compensation. The Act also imposes an obligation on the employer to provide dignified and safe working conditions and decent accommodation but does not specify what standards employers must meet to fulfill such obligations.
The Act expresses a firm commitment against forced labor and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, caste or creed. Importantly, the Act seeks to institute social security protection for domestic workers and establishes a Domestic Workers Welfare Fund to finance, among other expenditures, payment of sickness benefit, medical care during illness, injury benefits, disablement pension and maternity benefit to domestic workers. It is, however, questionable whether the Fund, financed mostly from grants and loans from the government, can be sustainable without contributions from employers and employees.
The 2019 Act has, in principle, put in place a laudable system of protection (albeit with certain defects) for domestic workers in Pakistan. The critical question, however, is whether the rights guaranteed under this Act will be implemented. In a year since the promulgation of the Act, it is reported that a majority of domestic workers remain unaware of the registration process or the rights provided under the Act.
Reportedly, till November 2019, only 12,500 domestic workers had registered with PESSI. With no powers provided under the Act to survey and inspect private households for the purposes of registration of domestic workers, it is questionable how registration will be ensured. Furthermore, the Dispute Resolution Committee tasked with the responsibility of addressing domestic workers’ grievances against employers has still not been notified. It is also important to question whether, given the power structures in which domestic work is performed, workers would even consider filing grievances against employers, upon whom they may be heavily dependent – financially or otherwise. The Act falls short in another respect: while prohibiting child labor in the home, it fails to provide for any rehabilitative measures for children who may have been forced into domestic work by their parents.
It is hoped that the Punjab Government will undertake necessary actions to correct lacunae and ensure implementation of the Act and that other provinces will follow suit.
*Sahar Zareen Bandial is an Advocate of the High Courts and a member of the Adjunct Faculty at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law, LUMs. She has a keen interest in gender issues and has worked extensively in the area of legislative drafting.