In the morning hours when you leave for office you find women, young and middle-aged, sitting in groups at the edges of the streets of several localities in Karachi — North Nazimabad, Gulshan, Garden, PECHS, Clifton — some chatting, a few ruminating, a couple doing needlework.
These are domestic workers waiting for bajis, their employers, to wake up, open the doors of their homes and let them in to the world of work that exists at the fringe of the labour market. It is one that is bereft of job security and decent wages and excluded from the scope of labour laws.
According to an estimate, there are 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan, most of them women and girls. Media reports, small surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest exploitation and abuse of domestic workers — long work hours, heavy workload, no rest, no holidays, low pay, allegations of theft and physical and sexual abuse.
Stories of paternalistic and charitable behaviour of employers towards domestic workers circulate in society: financial help through zakat, offering of food, used clothes and other items, medical assistance, etc. But society must accept that acts of charity — annual or irregular — are no substitute for legal entitlements, labour rights and human dignity.
Currently, there is no specific law on the rights of domestic workers in Pakistan. Of the labour code, only two pieces of legislation mention domestic workers.
The Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance 1965, under Section 55-A covers “Medical treatment of domestic servants’ and stipulates that ‘every employer of a domestic servant shall be liable to provide [medical treatment] at his own cost”.
The Minimum Wages Act 1961 includes “domestic work” in its definition of “worker”. But the government has never notified the minimum wages applicable to domestic workers under this law in the last 53 years.
A private member bill on domestic workers rights, titled Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Act 2013, was introduced in the Senate in January 2014 but it covers only the Islamabad territory. Yet, if it is made into a federal law, it will facilitate similar law drafting in the provinces.
Domestic work includes child domestic labour which refers to children aged five to 17 working as servants. In big cities, including Karachi, a large number of children, both male and female, are engaged in domestic work, often under debt bondage.
According to an ILO study in 2004, there were as many as 264,000 child domestic workers in Pakistan. The number is likely to be much more now. A civil society report cited 41 cases of torture to child domestic workers reported in the media during January 2010 to June 2013.
Pakistan has enacted the Employment of Children Act 1991 but it defines a child as “a person below 14 years of age” and does not declare child domestic labour as hazardous occupation.
Categorised by the ILO as one of the most vulnerable groups of workers, women constitute the bulk — 83pc — of domestic workers worldwide.
According to estimates by the ILO, 52.6 million were employed as domestic workers across the world in 2010. The exploitation inherent in this category of employment was acknowledged by the ILO way back in 1936, when an ILO committee recommended that the conditions of work for domestic workers be put on the agenda.
Yet it took the ILO 75 years to devise the standards for domestic workers. The Domestic Workers Convention No. 189 was adopted by the ILO in June 2011. Pakistan has not ratified the Convention as yet.
Organising domestic workers is a big challenge due to their atomised, closed, private workplaces. Almost totally male, weak and fragmented, the trade union movement in the country has failed to mobilise workers in the informal sector.
Recently, a union of 235 domestic workers has been registered in Lahore under an ILO project. Though some effort is better than none, the fact remains that project-driven unions fail to flourish. Unless workers are mobilised by committed leadership within its own rank, or through missionary zeal by a grass-roots activist, workers’ collective voice does not emerge.
India’ remarkable National Domestic Workers Movement, which today has over 200,000 members in 17 states, was initiated by Sister Jeanne Devos in 1980.
Through sustained lobbying, it has achieved a lot. There are eight labour laws in India that include domestic workers. Of these, Domestic Workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Act 2008 exclusively stipulates a number of provisions.
Seven states have notified minimum wages for domestic workers under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
In Pakistan what can be done immediately, at least, is to notify minimum wages for domestic workers under the Minimum Wages Ordinance 1961. If the newly formed domestic workers’ union, using its ILO-Pakistan clout, can push the Punjab labour department for this notification, that would be something.
This article was published in Dawn on January 27 2015, under the title ‘Hidden workers’.