Needed: a domestic workers’ bill of rights

Published: January 24, 2013
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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 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.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • naeem sadiq
    Jan 24, 2013 - 11:56PM

    Good that you raise this issue. There are live in employees at homes who are available 24/7 to their masters. Concept of duty hours, weekly holidays and minimum wages need to be legalised.

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  • Mirza
    Jan 25, 2013 - 2:07AM

    I am all for it and kudos to the writer to raise these questions. Let us hope against hopes that there is some movement in the “right” direction.

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  • A H
    Jan 25, 2013 - 2:15AM

    Good! Perhaps then BOTH sides would be better served. Right now hired ”help” is anything but that. Absenteeism, damage to property, negligence of duty, petty pilfering, theft, fraud etc on the workers’s side are sadly all too common aspects of this transaction. Codifying the terms of the deal in a legal contract would perhaps make the ”help” side more helpful by virtue of accountability.Till such a day arrives, I’ll continue to do my own work, cheerfully.

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  • asim
    Jan 25, 2013 - 12:42PM

    Correct domestic workers bill must be enacted. Here the writer should have high lighted also the rights of common people as per articles of the constitution.

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  • Imran
    Jan 25, 2013 - 2:46PM

    Domestic workers are slaves. Slaves have NO rights. Period!

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  • Mika
    Jan 25, 2013 - 5:31PM

    Huqooq-e-Niswan failed to stop murder, rapes, and abuse of women, what make you sure this would be any use?

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  • Salma
    Jan 25, 2013 - 6:25PM

    thanks for writing on this issue – domestic work should be formalized as informal work it can never gain the workers rights!

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  • Dr. Asher Hasan
    Jan 26, 2013 - 12:54PM

    Thanks for raising the awareness level on this important issue. NAYA JEEVAN (http://www.njfk.org) is Pakistan’s first not-for-profit organization to offer domestic, household workers (drivers, maids, cooks, guards, etc and their families) high-quality health insurance. For under PKR 200/month, domestic workers and their families can now be medically protected while giving them cashless access to a nationwide network of hospitals, 24/7 mobile phone access to family doctors and access to a philanthropic rescue fund for all uninsurable conditions. The premiums for these staff should are routinely co-financed by their informal employers with many paying 90-95% of the annual premium (PKR 2400/year). Actions speak louder than words…act now!

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  • Ali
    Jan 26, 2013 - 2:53PM

    Very well written article!!

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  • Jan 26, 2013 - 6:53PM

    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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  • John B
    Jan 26, 2013 - 8:02PM

    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.

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