Domestic workers

Published March 28, 2024
The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital.
The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

ON assuming power after his landslide victory in West Pakistan in the 1970 elections, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced five labour welfare laws and brought in amendments in other laws applicable to industrial and commercial establishments. These laws pertained to the education of workers’ children, the constitution of a workers’ welfare fund, cost of living relief, rules on workers’ participation in company profits, and old-age pension for retired employees.

In 1972, an amendment to the Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance, 1965, ensured that full-time ‘domestic servants’ were brought within the law’s fold. It became mandatory for every employer of a domestic servant to provide the latter with comprehensive medical care. This included in-patient and out-patient treatment, essential drugs supplies prescribed by a doctor, hospitalisation, including in cases related to pregnancy. However, such medical treatment, though on the statute books, has not been implemented.

Incidents of violence against maids and other domestic staff prompted the Punjab and federal government to promulgate the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, and the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act, 2021, respectively. Both laws envisage protecting the rights of domestic workers, including regulating their terms of employment and working conditions, and ensuring social protection, besides safeguarding their welfare.

The Acts require the employer to provide dignified working conditions and take occupational health and safety measures. The lawmakers have mentioned that domestic workers shall be addressed as such and not as ‘servant’. (It is ironical that there is no issue with the commonly used term ‘government servant’.)

The laws demand dignified working conditions.

However, there are glaring differences in the two laws. In Punjab’s case, a child under 15 years is not allowed to work in a household in any capacity while the age limit is 16 for the capital. Before imposing age limits, the government should have formulated plans for their compulsory education and implemented them. In Punjab, no domestic worker is required to work beyond eight hours a day, while the Islamabad law is more realistic in that it allows a 12-hour period free of duty during the day.

The Acts have taken key provisions from various labour laws and combined them. For instance, leave entitlement, the registration of employers, daily working hours, overtime pay, vaccination, the appointment of inspectors, prosecution of employers, penalties and accidents involving domestic workers have been taken from the Factories Act. Similarly, the fixation of a minimum wage, conditions of payment of wages and the establishment of the Minimum Wages Board are taken from the Minimum Wages Ordinance, while the resolution of disputes is from the Industrial Relations Act. The service of notice, or payment in lieu thereof, is from the Standing Orders Act. The domestic workers’ welfare fund is from the Companies Profits (Workers Participation) Act, and maternity benefits from the law on the subject.

Parallels cannot be drawn between a resourceful entrepreneur from an industrial or commercial establishment and an old couple dependent on their meagre lifetime savings or pension to survive, and who employ a domestic worker to look after their needs. There does not appear to be any justification to apply the same laws to the latter.

While many households employ domestic workers on a part-time basis, it appears that both Acts only extend to full-time domestic workers. Pro­­ponents of these laws may think that an obligation has been fulfilled in view of ILO convention C189, (Domestic Workers’ Convention, 2011), which has so far not been ratified by Pak­istan. The convention addresses discrimination with regard to the conditions of employment and work, and to other abuse of the human rights of migrant domestic workers.

Article 4 (2) of the convention asserts that the minimum age of employment should not deprive domestic workers from compulsory education, nor interfere with opportunities to participate in further education or vocational training.

There are millions of households in Punjab and Islamabad, who employ domestic workers. Who will ensure that they are following the law in letter and spirit? The governments’ labour departments have consistently failed to ensure even the registration of the numerous industrial and commercial establishments falling within their domain.

Expecting them to achieve the gigantic task of registering and inspecting all households employing domestic workers is unrealistic.

There is no point in framing laws which look impressive but whose implementation is hugely uncertain.

The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2024

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