It is good to see a private bill having been drafted for domestic workers in Pakistan. While the odds of private bills being endorsed by the parliamentary majority needed for them to turn into law are difficult, making an effort to offer legislative protection for domestic workers is noteworthy. A number of parliamentarians have apparently indicated support for this bill. A campaign has also been launched seeking feedback on the draft version of the Domestic Workers Act 2013, before it is tabled in the National Assembly.
While the number of domestic workers in the country is unknown, there is consensus regarding the prevalence of such work across our rural and urban areas, due to widespread deprivation and disparities that exist in the country. Domestic workers include people who cook and clean our homes, drive us around, and look after our children and the elderly, and do other household chores. While many employers treat domestic helpers well, the latter do remain vulnerable to many forms of exploitation, given the absence of specific labour laws to safeguard their interests.
The proposed bill, therefore, rightly emphasises the need for contractual agreements between employers and domestic workers. It prescribes age limits for domestic employment, forbids forced/bonded labour and calls for the application of minimum wages to domestic work. The draft bill mentions that contracts for employment of domestic workers must also specify a clear-cut scope of responsibilities for the employees and that the domestic workers be paid for overtime. Provisions are also made for maternity leave, compensation for injury and other leaves. Furthermore, employers are to be held responsible for providing decent accommodation and food to the people, who live and work in their homes. A one-month notice of termination of domestic workers is also mentioned in the draft bill.
The campaign launched to garner support for the bill is also stressing how the proposed bill would not place an unfair burden on employers. The bill does, in fact, propose to go beyond focusing on employers, since it requires the government to constitute a domestic workers welfare fund, which would secure contributions from both employers and registered domestic workers, to ensure that the latter are provided basic social security benefits like other formal sector workers.
In its current form, however, the bill does not sufficiently emphasise domestic workers’ responsibilities. One of these could be the requirement for domestic workers having to provide a month of notice before leaving their job as well, especially if their employer has fulfilled their side of contractual responsibilities. Moreover, the bill must also clearly differentiate between workers who reside within homes, or are employed for a few hours only and articulate special provisions for the latter as well.
There will probably be numerous cynics, who will dismiss this effort as being futile given the socioeconomic deprivation in the country. Or they may claim that legal contracts will not help domestic workers, who cannot read or write. However, even if people could be informed verbally of the terms of their contract, possibly signed in front of oath commissioners on a stamped legal paper, this could go a long way in providing tangible means to help empower domestic workers.
Formulating a domestic workers bill would hardly be an unprecedented effort. Other developing countries, including Brazil and the Philippines, have already passed similar laws. There are also provincial laws to the effect in Indian states, including Tamil Nadu. An International Labour Organisation (ILO)-formulated Domestic Workers Convention also comes into effect in September this year. Pakistan must sign this ILO convention, as this will provide further impetus to adopting a national law regulating domestic work and providing relief to the multitudes of our citizens, who work hard to make life more comfortable for those who can afford to hire domestic help.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2013.
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