From The Unheard – Protecting the Rights of Domestic Workers in Pakistan

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Domestic help is the largest source of employment with women and children as key players in underdeveloped countries like Pakistan, despite being an informal sector. This is one of the oldest sources of employment as we see domestic helps in the oldest of the civilizations that ever existed on the face of the earth.

It is no secret that domestic workers work overtime, are underpaid, and are often mistreated. Despite the employer’s acute dependence on the employee, the employer doesn’t believe the employee is an equal human being and treats the employee as a favor to the employee. To treat the domestic workers with respect means to pay them the minimum wage rate and not just the polite conversation.

Trapped in the vicious circles of poverty and illiteracy, many people have no choice but to work as a domestic help in cleaning, cooking, and caregiving in others’ houses. This job is easy to get and does not need any education, skill, or documentation but it brings in so many disadvantages with it like long working hours, low pay, and limited social and legal protection.

About 8.5 million people are engaged in domestic services according to International Labor Organization (ILO). However, this number is also not registered. The interesting point in domestic services is that both employee and employer are women. Here the relationship of employee-employer is gender-free but is developed based on class and social differences. Patriarchy denotes the role of a woman as a caretaker and a homemaker and thus this domestic service is outsourced to another woman. Men and women of upper and middle-class communities benefit from the labor of domestic workers which is a highly undervalued and underpaid type of labor. One of the cons of this labor is its occurrence in a household – a personal space of the employer – which beings the risk of a precarious working environment exposed to exploitation and abuse and sometimes even unnoticed harassment.

In Pakistan, domestic workers are mainly females or children. Another subcategory of domestic labor is bonded labor where children under 14 years of age are employed under debt bondage. According to an ILO study, almost 264000 children are working under debt bondage where nothing is paid to them and their services are payback to the debt their parents have taken years ago. The amount of debt would be minimal but the years of services, inclusive of emotional abuse and overtime work go on for decades.

The work is further classified as live-in and live-out (specifying day-based or task-specific employment type). According to the Labor Force Survey 2019, there are 0.46 million domestic workers in Pakistan out of which 0.364 million are task-based and all others are live-in where they work without task and time boundaries. According to ILO, this is the worst kind of employment where a child is working under debt bondage, tirelessly, day and night, and lives a confined life on the premises of the employer.

Despite 2019-despite its popularity- there is no legal framework established to protect the rights of domestic workers as this profession did not fall under the legal definition of a worker. Punjab Assembly in January 2019, passed the Domestic Workers Act, which regulates wages, provides health and security cards, and some measures to avoid exploitation in the workplace. However, this law is still unenforced, unfortunately.

The capitalist economy heavily depends upon the labor of working women especially those engaged in domestic work. Women contribute the major portion of the labor force in the case economy and they receive minimal acknowledgment for their services. This strengthens the capitalist loop of exploitation. The increasing economic inequality forces women to engage themselves in risky work environments for a minimum wage rate. They have to choose between the basic life necessities or the work environment, so they choose the life necessities and comprise the exploitative working conditions/environments.

Local domestic workers union is also formed and is operative in some cities of Pakistan, which gather the domestic workers on some local points and let the workers share their economic grievances. The union leaders there, actively take part in registering the members through an Android app launched by Punjab Employee Social Security Institute (PESSI). This app registers and issues social security cards on a priority basis. Although, the work is slow, at the start the progress of every movement is slow.

Although better than having nothing in place, the idea of an online regulatory system for domestic workers does not sound as promising as it should, considering the socio-economic condition of the workers it is made for. Many domestic workers strive for a third time’s meal and having access to android phones and technology plus education to feed the relevant information is far from their approach. They are perhaps the most stressed part of our society. Many domestic workers lack access to information about their rights only, and they don’t believe the system even if they have the information. This disbelief is a must, looking at the non-compliance of the Domestic Workers Act since January 2019. If the government wants to regulate the domestic workers in the true sense, it must, in any case, educate the workers about their rights through small-scale education hubs and complaint points where they can raise their voices and share their grievances on community levels to pull them out of invisibility.

With the hope of implementing this Domestic workers Act, we look forward to a better society with increased human rights and a better economy, but hoping for legal enforcement is not all we should do. Charity begins at home, and after this read, let’s promise ourselves to be the best employers for the domestic workers in our Homes.

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