The invisible workers

Updated June 12, 2016


There are more than an estimated 12 million child labourers in Pakistan, it’s time for the government to tackle this problem head on. On World Day against Child Labour, as organisations and citizens reflect on the issues of child workers, Images on Sunday looks at child labour in the informal sector

Silent victims

The practice of employing children as domestic staff begs the question: what kind of society condones such a cruel practice?

By Rizwana Naqvi

Eleven-year-old Shan Ali, who worked as babysitter for Atiya Al Hussain’s seven-month-old son, was reported dead to the police on Jan 5, 2012. Initially Atiya and her husband, Mudassar Abbas, told the police that Shan had committed suicide but the autopsy performed on him indicated he had been strangled to death. Eventually, Atiya confessed: while she was trying to sleep, Shan had neglected her son and she choked the 11-year-old boy to death in a fit of anger.

Leaving aside the absurdity of having a pre-teen look after a young child and the exploitation of Shan, what is highlighted in this case is the lack of adequate child labour laws in the informal sector. Shan should never have been employed in the first place, let alone be working in an environment where his employer was physically abusive and be able to get away with it. But there is no official government agency or implementation of laws to protect children working as domestic staff in affluent households.

The number of children working as maids or domestic help is hard to come by — there are no statistics on child domestic labour in Pakistan; not surprising given the invisible nature of the work. According to International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) report in 2012, however, there are an estimated 12 million child labourers in Pakistan. Women and young girls make up a disproportionate number of these workers; 8.5m of these workers are female but a significant number of boys are also exposed to similar problems and vulnerabilities.

Twelve-year-old Tehmina was pushed off a balcony by her employer for demanding her salary after not being paid for several months. She suffered spinal cord injuries and was paralysed. Her father was given some compensation but in return was asked to drop all charges against the employers. Within 3-4 months, neglect, poverty and her injuries claimed Tehmina’s life.

However, as Fazela Gulrez, a child rights activist, points out, the actual number of child labourers, let alone children currently working as domestic staff, is hard to ascertain. “No survey has been conducted on child labour in Pakistan since 1996,” she says.


Since these children work behind closed doors, in the privacy of people’s homes, it increases the chances of abuse and exploitation. According to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), violence against domestic child workers is on the increase; between January 2010 and December 2014, 47 cases of violence against child domestic workers were reported in different parts of the country, while as many as 24 children lost their lives from violence committed by their employers. Cases of such nature began to make headlines after January 2010, when Shazia Masih was tortured to death in Lahore at the hands of the family of a noted lawyer.

Snapshots of children at work -Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Snapshots of children at work -Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Child workers are kept in exploitative, almost slave-like conditions — they have long working hours and are assigned hard tasks like washing dishes and clothes, sweeping, cleaning, and gardening. Often they are assigned duties which carry a higher risk of causing injury such as ironing, working in the kitchen holding hot pans, using knives and other hazardous tools or washing bathrooms with chemicals. In many cases, such as Shan’s, they are made to take care of young children who are barely a few years younger than themselves.

Such children are mostly underfed and overworked, and, in case of live-in help, are often not provided proper sleeping quarters but are made to sleep on the hard floor. The slightest of mistakes can land them a scolding and a beating; many cases documented by NGOs and the media show that children are often subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse by their employers.

“Child domestic labour is considered the worst form of child labour as it takes place within the four walls of the house and hidden from the society. They are the least paid and have the longest working hours. In most of the cases they are from some remote rural area and live with the employer’s family … and have no contact with their own families for months,” explains Arshad Mahmood, a child rights activist.

Children engaged in labour are deprived of their basic rights, guaranteed under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (of which Pakistan is a signatory) and the country’s Constitution, such as the right to food, access to education, healthcare, development, to have friends, to play, and the right to protection from violence and exploitation.

Sadia had been working as a maid for a family living in the cantonment area in Chakwal. She wasn’t allowed to contact her family by her employer, Rakhshanda. After six months, in May 2016, Sadia’s father and brother paid Rakhshanda’s house a visit, only to find Sadia physically abused. Aside from the bruises on her skin, a worn-out plaster covered her arm, which was not there when she had left to work at the house.

Even when we talk about the ill-effects of child domestic labour, few people think of the damage that is caused to a child’s psyche when they are taken away from their family, subjected to abuse, and starved of love.

According to Gulrez, “Children working in homes are exposed to some of the most severe dangers and hazards, the most important being the loss of their childhood, which is hardly ever mentioned as a hazard. Other than that, they work as virtual slaves and in slave-like conditions with unlimited working hours and at very meagre wages and at times without pay.”

Gulrez adds that the sense of being ‘trapped’ and the hopelessness the child is plunged into is what is the most traumatic. “The worst is the loss of dignity and self-esteem that these children are exposed to from an early age, besides losing the opportunity to education and a healthy life. Many are separated from their parents and siblings and live in isolation with people who may generally look down on them as scum of the earth. Theirs is a life of despair, frustration and lost hope.”

Snapshots of children at work -Photo by Shameen Khan
Snapshots of children at work -Photo by Shameen Khan

Zohair Waheed, manager research and communication, Sparc, agrees, pointing out that often such children are trafficked to the cities from smaller towns and villages: “Children are employed in homes which remain unmonitored by child protection and labour department officials, allowing employers to exploit their young employees further. In Pakistan for instance, child domestic workers are hired by dubious ‘employers’ from rural areas and taken to cities to work in the homes of middle and upper middle-class families.”


Socio-economic factors such as poverty plus a lack of job opportunities for low-income adult workers usually force people to place their children in domestic work. If the child is hired as a live-in worker it also reduces the cost of meals and overcrowding in their homes. In addition to this, the demand exists as children can be hired for lower wages, they do not protest and meekly follow all orders, and above all have no protection. Some employers prefer to employ young boys and girls, since they feel more comfortable having them around female members of their own family.

One may ask why people leave their young sons and daughters to live and work at others’ homes where they are not safe. “No one wants their child to be away from them and that too with strangers who may or may not treat them properly, but circumstances force us to do so,” says Zainab Bibi.

Zainab doesn’t leave her daughter, who is 10 years old, anywhere but takes her along with her where she works to help her out, although she agrees that eventually she will have to find employment for her in a year or two when she has learnt her chores. “What options do we have? We can’t educate them so they find good jobs. And in these days when the cost of living is so high everyone has to chip in; I also have to save for her wedding,” she adds.

People like Zainab are banking their hopes on ‘good’ employers and there are people who do take care of their young employees, not making them work beyond their capacity and ensuring that they eat the same food as the family does, and get time to rest in between chores.

Then there are women like Mrs Haider, who does not even allow her maid to let her children work. “No child will work at my home,” she declared when her maid brought in her young daughter and insisted that she can sweep and clean. “Baji, our children learn to work at a young age,” the maid insisted. But Mrs Haider was resolute; she made the child sit in the shade and told the maid that she can bring her daughter if she can’t be left at home but that she will not work.

Snapshots of children at work -Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Snapshots of children at work -Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

In 2011, six-year-old Laiba’s body was found in a deserted place in Lahore. She was beaten to death by her employers for urinating on the kitchen floor.

Mahmood is of the opinion that in order to ‘create’ more employers like Mrs Haider, widespread awareness needs to be created about the negative effects of labour on children, and solutions need to be found outside the legal paradigm. However, the Pakistan government has a long way to go even when it comes to the legal course (See A legal vacuum).

It is important to sensitise people about child labour as mere legislation will not solve the problem. While poverty should not be taken as an excuse for child labour, if people who hire children to work at their place fix their wages beforehand and allow them to go to school or educate them at home, and give them time off for recreation and play, these children would be somewhat better off.

A legal vacuum

A new bill may improve the legal rights of child domestic workers but specific local laws and implementation by authorities need to be stronger

Twelve-year-old Tehmina, a domestic worker in Islamabad, hadn’t been paid for several months. According to an August 2010 Sparc report, when the young girl demanded that she be paid what she was owed, she was pushed off a balcony. The fall severely injured Tehmina’s spinal cord and she was paralysed; she died a few months later. There are plenty of cases such as Tehmina’s documented in the media and by NGOs. What makes the 12-year-old’s case even more tragic is that she had no legal rights as a child domestic worker under Pakistan’s labour laws.

There are no specific laws on domestic workers below the age of 18 in Pakistan. To make matters more complicated, the laws addressing adult domestic workers are not specific enough to be effective. Domestic labour is mentioned in two legislations: one is The Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance, 1965; Section 55-A of the ordinance stipulates that “Every employer of a domestic servant shall be liable to provide at his own cost to the domestic servant medical care to the extent mentioned in section 45”. The other is the Minimum Wages Ordinance, 1961 that includes ‘domestic work’ in its definition of ‘worker’ but the government has not yet notified the minimum wages applicable to domestic workers.

A new piece of legislation, the Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Bill, could change the legal landscape. According to Zohair Waheed, manager research and communication at Sparc, the bill was tabled in the Senate in January 2014 and “sent to the Senate Standing Committee on Law for review”.

While lawmakers debate what will and won’t work when it comes to domestic labour, children like Tehmina shall continue to suffer. Even in death, the 12 year old wasn’t able to get justice. Tehmina’s father was given compensation on the condition that he drop the charges against her former employers; he agreed.

“As the subject of domestic workers is a provincial one, the bill was amended to apply to the Islamabad Capital Territory. However, once the bill is passed by the Senate ... the provincial governments can adopt the bill to make it applicable in the provinces,” he adds.

The bill aims to protect the rights of the domestic workers, to regulate their employment and conditions of service and to provide them with social security, safety, health facility and welfare. It sets the age of domestic workers between 14 and 60, provides them with the same rights available to other formal sector workers, and creates a special domestic workers welfare fund.

Whether and how it will be implemented is another matter: given that there is often no official agreement between the parties, enforcing anything legally could prove to be tricky. “There is no formal employment contract and arrangements are made informally between the employers and the child’s family,” points out Arshad Mahmood, a child rights activist.

Some activists argue that there are other national and local laws that can easily be utilised to discourage and regulate child labour. “Child domestic labour [can be notified] under the schedule of banned occupations of the Employment of Children Act, 1991 and the Punjab Employment of Children (Amendment) Act 2011,” says Mahmood.

The activist further adds that other legal options such as the implementation of Article 25-A of the Constitution which ensures the provision of “free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law” could also be explored. “Effective implementation of [the article] can play a major role in the eradication of child domestic labour,” he states.

The government has also fallen short of its obligations under international conventions it is a signatory to. Pakistan has ratified a number of UN and ILO conventions relating to children such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits work for children at the expense of their education, health, childhood and remuneration among other things; it has also ratified ILO conventions regarding the minimum age for employment, hazardous and worst forms of child labour.

Experts point out that the government could have done more to implement what it agreed to under these conventions. “A list of banned occupations was also prepared and notified under the schedule of banned occupations of the Employment of Children Act, 1991; however, child domestic labour has not been included in that list despite the fact that [it] is clearly one of the worst forms of child labour,” emphasises Mahmood.

Pakistan has also not signed the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers (2011) which could have had the most impact on the ground. It calls for comprehensively banning child labour in the domestic sector and for setting up of a minimum age for domestic workers consistent with the ILO conventions on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work, and the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

The Convention requires ratifying states to ensure that work done by children (those above the minimum age of employment for domestic workers and less than 18 years of age) does not affect their ability to get a meaningful education.

Child rights activists believe that concrete legislation or policy steps have to be taken by the government to ensure basic rights for domestic workers and that more research needs to be done before effective policies can be written.

“It is important to carry out a serious and comprehensive survey to find out the exact magnitude of the problem. Implementation of national laws [and conventions] to stop child labour, absolutely and completely without any reservations, is a difficult task but it is not an impossible one,” states Fazela Gulrez, a child rights activist.

She also believes implementation of family planning on a war footing will go a long way in addressing poverty, one of the root causes of child labour. “This may sound like radical strategy, but [considering] where Pakistan stands in all its human indicators perhaps this is one of the most vital measures … for the welfare of the child, parents and Pakistan,” she says.

While lawmakers debate what will and won’t work when it comes to domestic labour, children like Tehmina shall continue to suffer. Even in death, the 12 year old wasn’t able to get justice. Tehmina’s father was given compensation on the condition that he drop the charges against his daughter’s former employers; he agreed.

Mahmood points out that out-of-court settlements are very common in such instances; he says Tehmina’s father was paid Rs300,000 for his ‘troubles’. “Such inhuman and tragic murders should be considered a crime against the state and should not be allowed to be settled out of court,” says Mahmood. Whether the state does anything, however, is a game of wait and see. -Rizwana Naqvi

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 12th, 2016