Five years ago, Naseem Bibi, 34, who currently works as a cook, was hired as a sweeper for a Karachi household.
“I cleaned the house and was treated like the dirt. There was a Filipino maid who was treated much better,” she recalls. “Begum Sahib constantly nagged me for not doing work right. She even kicked me sometimes. She would hardly say a word to the Filipina maid because if she was mistreated, it would be reported to her Embassy. I was an easy target.”
Naseem Bibi said she was falsely accused of stealing two rings and a gold bracelet and fired instantly. Her employers sent the police to the maid’s home. “They harassed me and asked me to hand back the stolen goods. I can never forget those terrible moments,” she says.
Many domestic servants suffer more ruthless abuse at the hands of their employers. The case of Shazia Masih, a young girl who was tortured and raped by her employer in 2010, is a glaring testament to the plight of domestic workers.
Authoritative sources report that there are approximately 8.5 million informal domestic workers in Pakistan. Most of the households hire underpaid workers such as sweepers, nannies, cooks and drivers. And yet there are no labour laws to protect the rights of domestic help.
According to many workers, the overall infrastructure of informal sector employment has to be revised to ensure that a proper system of checks and balances is maintained.
Bushra, 35, works as an attendant to an elderly lady who is bed-ridden. She got this job through an agency, a sort of employment bureau, which recommended Bushra to her employers.
“The agency doesn’t have a proper system. I travel by bus every day to the place where the agency office is located and ask if there was a vacancy available. It is a tedious process that needs to be streamlined. They could make a phone call to inform me.”
Bushra admits that, if systematically organised, employment bureaus could do much better. “The office personnel ask for our utility bill or some other identity for verification and we are put through a trial” she explains.
Not all bad
After seven-year-old Ghulam Qadir gets off from his madrassah, he takes a bus to the house where he works as domestic help.
“Ever since my daughter got married and migrated, this kid has been a great help to me,” says the lady who employs him. “We treat him like a member of the family. He joins us at the table when we eat and watches television with my younger son,” she said with a warm smile.
Most child domestic workers (CDWs) are not as fortunate as Ghulam. According to the Institute for Social Justice, 41 cases of CDW trafficking, abuse, death and torture have been reported between January 2010 and June 2013. Although civil society organisations have been lobbying to ban child domestic labour through the Employment of Children Act 1991, all their efforts have been futile.
In order to develop strong labour laws to protect the rights of domestic workers in Pakistan, a positive change in social attitude is needed.
Dr Irum Shaikh, an employer, believes that domestic workers need to be treated with respect and kindness. “I do not allow my children to speak to them rudely,” she says. “They are encouraged to treat the cook, the maid and the driver just like they would greet their family members – with a polite salam.”
Domestic Workers Bill
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan believes the Islamabad-based Household Servant Registration Drive, conducted in June 2013, will serve to improve the situation. However, it seems unlikely that such systems of registration could engender a sympathetic position on domestic labor rights in Pakistan. The starting point of the campaign is, at best, flawed. It feels like it is based on assumption that all domestic workers are criminals.
Ahmed Waseem, an Islamabad resident, interprets this scheme of registration as a ‘misguided philosophy’. And yet, he is optimistic about its outcome. “We all know that it’s wrong to treat our servants as criminals. But I think this exercise will help produce data that can be used in the future to protect their rights,” he says.
The Domestic Workers Act 2013 is a private bill that guarantees legislative protection to domestic workers in Pakistan. Although it has yet to be approved by the parliament, the draft of the bill provides several safeguards for domestic workers. However, it is difficult to predict whether this law will be implemented or simply provide lip service to the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2013.