According to International Labour Organization (ILO), around 8.5 million people in Pakistan — mostly women and children — are employed as domestic workers. One could describe a domestic helper as ‘unrecognized labour’ without any legal protection or written contracts between the employer and worker, which makes them more fragile and vulnerable to long hours of work, heavy workload, violence and abuse at work, no minimum wage protection and low salaries. We are living in a country where domestic help is reasonably affordable to the middle class and upper class. Domestic helpers are hired to perform a variety of services, from cooking, cleaning, ironing, laundry and care for elderly/children including other house chores. The escalating rate of urban population in our country is also increasing the demand for domestic help. Domestic help is also believed to be the largest employment sector in the country. Lack of education and skills, lack of employment opportunities, domestic violence, high cost of living, poor economic conditions and migration from rural to urban areas are forcing women in the informal sector to seek employment as domestic workers.
Due to economic woes, in most low-income families one member’s income is not sufficient to run the household. In this scenario, mothers have to bear the burden of being domestic helpers to provide their children adequate food, clothing, education and medication. Moreover, women in this sector with young children face many challenges, either their husbands are jobless, or they are widowed, divorced, separated, or married to drug addicts. Once they start working as domestic help they often end up spending less time at their own home and bear the loss of time with their children. They are paid as low as PKR 3000 for their valuable services.
The irony, however, is that they are the extra hand in our life but fail to get fair wages, health insurance, pension and maternity benefits. Moreover, there are no rules for remuneration of unlawful working hours, food, clothing, recreation, vacation and most importantly respect; all of this is entirely contingent on the generosity of the employer. Unfortunately, domestic helpers are quite often exploited and remain forgotten members of our society. The exploitative conditions of domestic helpers, especially mothers, have affected their children’s lives.
What can be done to make a difference in their life? How can we nurture a culture in which they get the same protection and rights as other workers? How can we protect them from being exploited? As an employer, it is important that we must provide better working conditions and environment to our domestic help. We should understand when a helper is dealing with a family crisis and try to help them financially in case of an emergency and adjust their payment accordingly. We should create an environment where they can easily talk about their family/children’s needs. Showing a sign of appreciation for their work can go a long way. We should limit the working hours so that they can easily fulfil their motherly responsibilities and take care of their family as well. We can help them to learn a new skill, e.g., stitching. Fair wages, fair working hours, weekly holiday, financial support, job security and free or reasonable medical facilities are other factors that will help improve their living standard.
Apart from employers’ support, media, civil society and NGOs may also play an effective role in highlighting the rights of domestic help. There are many NGOs working on socio-economic empowerment programs to help the domestic help. By collaborating with ILO and focusing on extracting, preparing and executing sustainable programs to train underprivileged domestic workers will allow them to help workers secure better-paid jobs. The main reason behind this training is to instill confidence and allow them to become financially stable and independent. These projects also aim to give them respect and basic labour rights. The government of Sindh has recognized home-based workers as labour by enacting the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act 2018. This Act is the first of its kind in the country to provide social security, pension, and health allowance to home-based workers. Punjab followed suit and introduced the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 to regulate the basic rights including wages, health and medical benefits, and social security of domestic helpers. Here are some provisions of the Workers Act.
Additionally, to cover any issue regarding domestic workers and their employers this Act has laid down some procedural provisions. This Act is a positive step to overcome the problems of economic exploitations of domestic helpers. As postulated by this law, every domestic worker has the right to live with dignity.
The society has paid less attention to raising the living standard of domestic helpers and turns a blind eye to this part of the informal sector. It is left to the government to undertake necessary actions to implement the Domestic Workers Act. Other provinces should also follow suit. Most of the domestic workers remain unaware of the rights provided under the Workers Act. Introduction of different awareness-raising programs to inform both workers and employers on the rights of domestic helpers is needed. There is also dire need to execute such a program in which children of domestic workers can get benefits, such as fee reimbursement and scholarships, etc. This will help not only the workers but the whole nation as we will have additional educated and trained human capital to help build our country.
All in all, uplifting domestic help is not something that will help the target workforce only but something that will help us all in the long run in becoming a more equitable and progressive society. Let us help our helping hand! HH
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