A thankless job: Domestic helpers denied basic rights

Published: November 6, 2014
"A large percentage of domestic workers in Pakistan are women and they are the most exploited section of our society," Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed. PHOTO: AFP

"A large percentage of domestic workers in Pakistan are women and they are the most exploited section of our society," Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed. PHOTO: AFP


Uneeza’s haggard looks and terrified eyes betray the intense humiliation and maltreatment she has suffered while working as a domestic helper in the capital. The ill-treatment of female domestic workers leaves them vulnerable and scarred. In some cases, recovery may take a lifetime, severely damaging the victim’s psychological state of mind and personality.

Uneeza worked as a housemaid in one of the capital’s posh sectors between March 2013 and February 2014, where she along with her three little daughters Amna, Ayesha and Sadaf — aged 5, 4 and 2 respectively — were beaten ruthlessly by a baseball bat if dinner was served a few minutes after the scheduled time. Her identity card and mobile phone were also confiscated on the very first day at work and she was not allowed to leave her owner’s mansion at any time. Not only were she and her daughters verbally as well as physically abused, but they were given only one meal a day. After her uncle ran a case in the court, which took a few months, Uneeza managed to flee from her ‘baji’s’ residence and is now residing in a slum in Sector F-6.

Rafia on the other hand, works six days a week as a full-time maid in Sector F-7. After drudging for long hours, she gets paid a miserly salary of Rs1,800 at the end of the month.

Domestic labour is based on an informal unwritten contractual arrangement between the employer and the worker. These women find jobs by word of mouth through friends, neighbours and relatives who are domestic workers in different residential areas. As there is no fixed wage structure for domestic workers under the labour laws, wages vary according to the position of the employer and their residential areas. Time schedules also vary according to the needs of both the employer and the employee.

“A large percentage of domestic workers in Pakistan are women and they are the most exploited section of our society” said Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, also a member of the Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights. He further added that despite the fact that our society is more aware about human rights issues on the whole, the government isn’t playing a catalytic role in overcoming this grave issue. “As a prerequisite, the Ministry of Human Rights should be restored forthwith,” he said.

A bill titled “The Domestic Workers (Employments Rights) Act” was tabled in the Senate in January this year which offers workers a written contract mentioning the terms of employment, predefined working hours and working conditions. Although the bill will only apply to Islamabad Capital Territory, it is the first of its kind legislation in Pakistan for the rights of domestic workers. It is unfortunate, however, that the said bill is still under the scrutiny of the Committee on Law and Justice in the upper house of Parliament.

“Domestic services in Pakistan are an unregulated and unorganised form of work. Women domestic workers — mainly housemaids — are an indispensable part of Pakistan’s socio-economic life,” said Samar Minallah Khan, a human rights activist and documentary filmmaker. Women enter into this low-skilled and underpaid field for reasons such as poverty, illiteracy and lack of resources. Due to this they often fall prey to all kinds of harassment, mental and physical abuse, are generally underpaid and overworked, she added.

Expressing her thoughts, Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, said “A lot of discussions have taken place regarding the rights of domestic workers at various forums, however, there is an urgent need to take concrete steps in this regard.”

There are no clear estimates of the total number of domestic workers in the country, however, according to an International Labour Organization study, every fourth household in the country hires one domestic worker and a majority of these are women and children.

Looking at the fact that female domestic help forms a significant part of Pakistan’s workforce, a sound mechanism to implement laws and regulations already existing in statute books is needed to protect these workers.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2014.

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