Can servants become domestic workers?

While many employers treat domestic helpers well, the latter do remain vulnerable to many forms of exploitation.


Syed Mohammad Ali August 22, 2013
The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne [email protected]

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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COMMENTS (10)

smbfhs | 7 years ago | Reply

@Lala Gee: @AliKuliKhan: Excellent opinions by both of you. An excellent article too. √We all know any government program from business tax collection to semi-govt Dept's, are heavily prone to corruption to the extent of zero usefulness of such, Resulting back on to privatization table. √As much as the govt is drooling over the income in billions from just Karachi alone, it won't bring much desired benefit for the workers or the hiring families or homeowners. Why? √Most abuse of the 80% of labor is in agriculture industry and not in the city where they have all the facilities and choices and majority of the employers are educated and compromising to the need of poor from interior areas. <Still, an skill test for salary, a crime background check, proof of permanent residence for police report for rampant theft and murder by no-doc workers, an affiliation with a hiring or screening agency is a must. √Days of city ladies for shopping & fun(loss for local markets)are over. Cut throat lawsuits then self cooking & cleaning are in. Oh, I never thought of "Hartaal" and political maneuvering stunts by the powerfulls.

Rabia | 7 years ago | Reply

Its a commendable move, unfortunately so long as several other things remain as they are, it is likely to remain unworkable. 1) Salaries for domestic work must be raised. Poorly paid workers will always give in to mistreatment for the sake of keeping their jobs. 2) Other conditions must improve. Right now both my Cook and the Cleaner have asked me to go along with them to settle a technical dispute with NADRA in one case, and their driving licence made in the other. They both feel they would rather not deal with officialdom on their own, and that they will be shortchanged, once the officials see a poor man in front of them. 3) We MUST stop referring to servants in demeaning ways (choora, jamadar). The spoken word has an effect on thought processes. Many laws/regulations that are made embody commendable ideals but they prove too lofty when it comes down to enforcing them. Sadly.

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