LAHORE: After years of lobbying for a law, activists finally saw the provincial assembly pass the Punjab Domestic Workers Act which intends to help enforce the rights of those who ‘provide services of a domestic nature in a household, including child care, old age care, sick care or natal/post-natal care’ along with other work in a household.

But despite welcoming the Bill’s passing, labour activists point out several serious gaps that the law will have if implemented in this form.

The Act gives protection to the employees of household work by recognizing their rights, whereas before this, domestic workers were considered as ‘invisible’ workers, in fact their terms of employment were such that they were regarded as almost ‘modern day slaves’.

However the gaps within the Act may end up with only limited recognition of these rights.

Child rights activists feel that the very first issue is that of age. The Act says that no one under the age of 15 years can be allowed to work; this means from age 15 they can be employed.

Advocate Ahmar Majeed who is also a child rights’ activist says that the 15 years age limit makes the concept of protecting minors redundant.

“No safe working conditions have been specified, or any rest hours, or anything about food,” he says. “All children will be working unsupervised.”

Majeed quotes the example of 16-year-old Uzma whose employers beat her to death for “eating from one of their plates”.

SP Investigations Shazia Sarwar had said the women had murdered Uzma and then had her father called to the police station for questioning. Uzma’s family had revealed that employer and her daughters would often physically abuse her.

“Who is to see what is happening behind closed doors?” asks Majeed. “Labour inspectors do not have the powers to check into how a domestic worker is being treated.”

He adds that there have been no real changes in the bill before passing it either.

“For a minor domestic worker in particular, there is no complaint mechanism, no law that speaks of their rehabilitation once they are recovered and rescued from abuse. On top of this the punishment for employing children of an older age (12 to 15 years) is lower than those employing children under 12. This gives employers more chance to violate the law. Punishment should be the same for all ages.”

Umme Laila Azhar, Executive Director of HomeNet Pakistan, says that even the women’s rights have not been fully safeguarded.

“The women workers have only been given a ridiculous six weeks for maternity leave, while the law specifically states at least 12 weeks,” she says. “No transport facilities or perks are mentioned.”

Regarding the issuance of a contract, Laila asks under what mechanism the employer would issue a contract. “Who will check this? Would inspectors be inducted area wise or UC wise? We are already short of labour inspectors for factories, how will this whole system function?”

Unicef’s Zahida Mansoor says this is the first good step by the government to approve such a law to address the issue of economic exploitation of children, but all labour laws must be aligned with the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan has signed and ratified, and which gives the cutoff age for all children to be 18 years. Anyone under that is a child according to the law.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2019