IN June, ILO adopted Convention (189) on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that is something historic since it enters the informal sector setting out standards to improve the condition of those working in a household or caring for families.

In Pakistan most of such workers are women, unskilled, illiterate and oppressed, hence open to exploitation. But what about the children who work in homes? Their number is not accurately known and since the practice of employing little children is socially accepted there is no societal sanction against it. ILO believes that every fourth household in Pakistan employs a child for domestic work.

The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) describes domestic child workers as “victims of exploitation behind closed doors”.

Sparc’s report The State of Pakistan’s Children 2010 has horrifying stories to tell. It says that last year, 10 children doing domestic work in homes were subjected to violence and killed by their employers. Another eight were brutally tortured.

These incidents made no more than a ripple. Thousands are murdered in the country every year, one may say, so why care for these 18? Shazia Masih’s case, however, created a sensation in the electronic media for a while. The 12-year-old girl from an under-privileged Christian family had allegedly been sexually abused and tortured by the family she worked for. She died in hospital.

The media created a rumpus. The autopsy report had spoken of torture. Nevertheless, that did not prevent the medical board that was appointed from certifying that the child had died of malnutrition and infection. This case also faded from public view soon thereafter when the employer was acquitted and a compensation paid by him to Shazia’s family. The employer was a former president of the Lahore Bar Association.

I have personally heard horrifying tales of parents selling their girls to be employed as domestic workers for a year — although this is prohibited by ILO conventions. For 12 months, the child has no contact with her family. Public attention has focused on the issue only when a child dies or is severely injured. But no one even notices when children are underfed, made to work excessively long hours while being denied their right to education, healthcare, leisure and protection from sexual abuse. Worse, the child is starved of love and emotional security.

It is not considered an act of perversity when the employers’ children receive special treatment while the suffering child worker remains a silent onlooker.

Now that Convention 189 is in place will the situation improve? Pakistan voted for the law but it has to ratify it. Even then, will it be implemented? The main question to be asked is if this will have any impact on child domestic labour.

Technically, international conventions check child labour and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Pakistan is also a signatory, makes it compulsory for member states to observe the rights spelt out, some of which, such as compulsory education, rest and leisure, and freedom from punishment and torture, if observed, would make it impossible for a child to work.

ILO Recommendation 146 lays down standards that humanise child labour, for which the minimum age is stipulated to be 15. This will make child workers in Pakistan invisible and all the more vulnerable and in need of extra protection. Convention 189, however, holds out a ray of hope for children 15-18 years of age who work in homes. Their employers are obliged to provide them education. One should add that they should be provided additional emotional security because of their tender age.

How hopeful can one be in Pakistan? The families of the children are poor and deprived and invariably large. They believe that their child is better off when working in the home of a person who provides her food for work. The employers prefer children as workers because they are pliable, do not argue, can be bossed around and do not protest. Employers believe that they acquire ownership over the child who works for them. That explains why sexual abuse and violence are so common.

This makes it so important that domestic legislation be enacted to regulate child domestic labour. Laws to prohibit the employment of children under 15 should be strictly enforced. It should be the employers’ responsibility to provide the under-18 education, healthcare and adequate rest and recreation. Enacting such laws is not enough. A mechanism for monitoring domestic labour should be devised and the authority to launch complaints stipulated in Convention 189 (Article 17) should be set up.

The grave implications for society of subjecting children to the rigours of domestic labour are not understood. Neuroscientists who have been doing research on the human brain are now convinced that a child’s experiences in the early years of his life shape his brain.

In an interesting article I read in the London School of Economics’ magazine for its alumni, Connect, Prof Nikolas Rose, who is the director of the school’s BIOS Centre, wrote: “While many have long argued for the importance of early childhood it is claimed that this is crucial for the development of the brain … [and] neuroscience now shows objectively that major public investment in intensive input into families in the early years will pay great dividends in averting later problems and the individual, social and economic cost associated with them.”


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