Rights For Domestic Workers
There is no dearth of sad commentary on the absence of legal safeguards for domestic workers – one of the most vulnerable sections of the labour force. However, a proposed law recently passed by the Senate attempts to fully protect and regulate the rights of domestic workers, defining their working conditions and structure of wages. With a dire need to have accountability and a change in attitude of the employers towards their help, only time will tell how realistic this law will be.
The Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Bill 2015, if passed by the National Assembly would be the first kind of legislation in Pakistan and will change the face of the informal economy. Under the proposed law, the age of any workers, both for men and women, shall not be less than 14 years of age and not more than 60 years. Every worker shall enter into a written contract with his employer with regard to the terms and conditions of employment. Moreover, this contract shall include specific terms and conditions related to matters such as hours of work, specific nature of work, wages, leave, food and accommodation and measures within the scope of the employment. It shall also be the duty of the government to ensure regular employment, timely payment, suitable working conditions and other prescribed facilities to the worker.
The intent must be applauded, as rights abuses in this sector are rampant, but will the law not create obstacles to a lot of poor people finding work, when employers have to file paperwork and are scared of being dragged to court over disputes? Workers and employers to find an alternative will help catalyse a black economy of masters and servants. What was once unmonitored, will become illegal. Now laws should exist to regulate this sector, and they do in the west, but the workforce that the bill tries to tackle is too large and too diverse, and too embedded in local cultures. While in urban centres, people may have the awareness and access to law, what will the law mean for rural areas, where tribal and feudal systems have encouraged armies of servants and workers?
Long working hours, poor salaries, taunts and beatings, sexual abuse, even murder, have made life a living hell for domestic servants. Sadly, the absence of viable job alternatives and education leaves them with few options. The law, though imperfect, and with limited applicability, is a good reality check for many employers. According to an estimate, there are 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan, most of them women and girls. Not only is legislation required, a sea change in attitudes is also needed if there is to be an improvement in the current situation of domestic workers who must be apprised of their rights.