Needed: a domestic workers’ bill of rights

Change will only take place when we start seeing domestic workers as human beings deserving respect, dignity.

Sara Ali January 24, 2013
The writer is a lawyer and a researcher in a think tank based in Lahore and holds a law degree from the University of London

The practice of hiring domestic workers is rampant across Pakistan and numerous cases of violence and abuse inflicted on such workers have been reported in the media but to date, no concrete step has been taken to resolve this problem. The number of casualties amongst domestic workers are on the rise and in order to do away with them, it is crucial for Pakistan’s legal fraternity and policymakers to propose a cogent law that not only prohibits acts of violence but also provides these workers with basic rights and fulfils their needs.

It is important for Pakistan to not only ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189, pertaining to domestic workers, but to also pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights, since such an instrument will give a fresh impetus to the promotion and protection of workers’ rights by spelling out their privileges and explaining procedural requirements for claiming them. Requiring a written contract for domestic workers will be perceived as a huge step in bringing domestic work within the realm of the formal sector in Pakistan.

Given the way domestic workers operate in Pakistan and their financial and social standing, most of them are oblivious to their legal rights and enforcement mechanisms, hence written contracts can come into play when their basic rights are in jeopardy. However, for written contracts to take effect in the case of domestic workers, there is a need to hold regular awareness raising sessions, aimed at imparting information to these workers about their inherent and rudimentary rights. Pakistan must learn and adopt from the model being followed in other countries, such as Kazakhstan, where the country’s labour code of 2007, article 214 states: “The employment of a domestic worker is confirmed by the contract of employment.” The legislation must guarantee the right of freedom of association to the domestic workers and must promote collective bargaining.

Convention 189 of the ILO also stresses the need to put an end to the practice of forced and compulsory labour. In a nutshell, it ensures protection from all kinds of mental and physical abuse, protection of wages, freedom of movement and their belongings. If such a bill is to be passed in Pakistan, we must ensure that it includes the rights enshrined for domestic workers in the ILO Convention, as well as learn from the example of other countries. Likewise, a Pakistani domestic workers’ bill of rights must outline criminal offences and penalties, specifically dealing with the domestic work situation, to prohibit employers from engaging in inhumane and degrading conduct. For instance, Ireland’s Code of Practice for Protecting Persons Employed in other People’s Homes, section 5.8 states: “The employer shall not withhold any personal documentation belonging to the employee.” Moreover, it must stipulate that persons below the age of 18 must not be hired as domestic help; if they are, then safeguards must be put in place to ensure that they are properly protected.

Domestic workers must be given decent remuneration. The bill must state that “paid household work shall be remunerated at a rate no lower than the national minimum wage, in the case of full-time working hours. Part-time work shall be remunerated at half the rate of the national minimum wage.”

Since domestic workers in Pakistan are predominantly women, any act that discriminates against them, must be prohibited. Female domestic workers in Pakistan are largely Christians and belong to other minority groups as well, who because of race and sex discriminations, are vulnerable to unfair labour practices. The bill must allow maternity leave to such workers. It should also mention the normal hours of work that a domestic worker is expected to undertake, stipulating compensation for overtime work. The domestic worker under this bill must be allowed a day off in a week and must be provided weekly rest periods. Lastly, special attention must be given to the living and working conditions of domestic workers, making the owner liable for providing sound accommodation and reasonable food.

The passage of such a bill requires serious contemplation and measures must be taken to address and bring an end to violence that domestic workers face. Change in Pakistan will only take place when we start seeing these workers as human beings deserving of respect and dignity.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2013.


John B | 11 years ago | Reply

Domestic workers labor pool is an epitome of unemployment present in a society due to various reasons, and discrimination is one them. In many respects, domestic worker empolyers fill in the void of charity work where an individual can earn a honest wage for honest work and the wages depends on market condition -disposabale income from the employer.

The specific domestic workers bill is a feel good attempt without any tangible outcome. There are laws in the book already to punish the employer who abuses the worker and laws regulating private employer who employs domestic worker at his /her pleasure of convenience can only jeopardize those who depend on this type of employment.

No household will employ a domestic worker who demands things through association. Domestic work force is a mutual beneficial assistance based on goodwill of both parties. As the economic output in other sectors improve, domestic workers will become scarce and better wages and conditions eventually ensue for those who seek this type of employment. Until that happens, any regulations on domestic worker employer will only drive the opposite effect and the employer will seek to employ selective workers who fit their further stringent demands-low pay, long hours, etc.,

What is good for Ireland, Britain, and US is not applicable for PAK where the supply is more than the demand. In 19 and early 20 century US and UK, domestic work is a major employment but now it is no longer available despite increase in population and demand. Why? Alternate employment are attractive. Until that happens, PAK has to be patient and any state controlled regulation euphemistically called bill of rights, will only jeopardize the poor workers whose livelihood depends on such employment.

Will you as a private employer prefer a worker who will demand things more than you can offer?

Domestic worker wage is a charitable wage pool and not a real employment and charity is at the discretion and regulations will dry up the charity.

Jag Nathan | 11 years ago | Reply

Excellent work Sara Ali. I wish there were more women like you. This bill is very much required in India as well. However, the most important thing that we all require is a change in our attitude towards how we treat those who are less fortunate than us. The need to treat a fellow human being justly and honorably has to come from the heart and not through legislation. Instead of teaching kids how great each of our religions are, how great Gandhi and Jinnah were and so on, perhaps time should be spent teaching kids in school a full course in Civic responsibilities and behavior. That coudl change things. That's how the Japanese changed their society after teh 2nd world war and it did pay off.

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