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Servants no more

Punjab cabinet finally approves Domestic Workers’ Bill 2018, envisaging protection and due rights to domestic workers

Servants no more
Homework done for domestic workers.
Sumera, 11, comes from a poor family based in Sharqpur district near Lahore. She has worked as a maid at the house of a man known as Ejaz, for good four years. Throughout this period, she stayed at his house which was located in northern part of the Lahore.

There were no fixed working hours for her and neither was the nature of work defined by the employer. She was supposed to perform any task she was asked to and at anytime and the order would come mostly from Ejaz’s wife who was ruthless in her dealing with her.

It was too common for Sumera to get subjected to physical and mental abuse for minor mistakes or for no reason at all. She had resigned to her fate and would not even complain to her parents who had left her with this family for work.

On one fateful day, Sumera found her boss in a fearful mood and carrying a stick in her hand. Without waiting for a second, this woman attacked her with a stick, gave her a heavy thrashing and even burnt her body with hot iron. At this Sumera fled from the house and was spotted by police which registered a criminal case against her employers after initial investigation.

This case in point is just one of the many incidences of excesses meted out to domestic workers who have no voice whatsoever. The cases that have come to light so far are mostly about criminal torture on them or sexual and physical abuse.

However, a lamentable fact is that domestic workers have hardly been treated as labourers and left to work according to informal and unwritten terms of reference.

If one looks at Sumera’s case, one finds out that though it is about torture it does not include violation of labour laws. For example, she was made to work long hours despite being under-age, ensure her availability for work round the clock, forgo the leaves entitled to workers and forget that anything like overtime, minimum wage etc exists in the world of work.

Why domestic workers have remained deprived of decent work environment for ages? Whether there are any chances of their coverage under labour laws is another question that needs to be answered.

“One major reason for this oversight on part of state machinery is that there has been no law anywhere in the country to regulate domestic work,” says Khalid Mehmood, Director Labour Education Foundation (LEF). In fact, he says, this issue was not taken seriously because people thought such a law could not be implemented. The reason they cited was that enforcing a labour law within the four walls of a house was difficult as labour inspectors could not visit houses for inspections, he adds.

However, Punjab cabinet has approved Domestic Workers’ Bill 2018 which will become a law once it is passed by the provincial assembly. This is quite likely as it is a government bill.

The law which is likely to be the first in the country is quite comprehensive and has many provisions that have been termed too ambitious and against realities that exist on ground.

For example, the draft mentions: No child shall be required or allowed to work in household in any capacity. Workers shall have freedom of work and shall not be employed under the bonded labour system. Every worker shall be engaged through a written agreement with his employer in regard to the terms and conditions of the employment in a prescribed manner. The employment agreement shall include specific terms and conditions related to matters such as hours of work, specific nature of work, wages, leave, accommodation, termination. The worker shall be addressed as ‘domestic worker’, not ‘servant’.

The benefits for domestic worker shall include sickness benefit, maternity benefit, medical care during sickness and maternity, medical care of dependents, injury benefit, disablement pension and survivor’s pension.

No worker shall be required to perform any work other than what is specifically mentioned in the employment contract. Working hours, overtime, minimum age, maternity benefits, accommodation, annual leave, festival leave etc are mentioned in the draft.

Every domestic worker, in order to benefit from the fund (formed for their welfare), shall file an application for registration in a manner as prescribed by the governing body. Similarly, every agency or contractor or trust or NGO or association by whatever name called, which supplies domestic workers and employer, in order to benefit from this act, shall make an application for registration in a manner as prescribed by the governing body.

Fauzia Viqar, Chairperson Punjab Commission on Status of Women (PCSW), tells TNS that work on this law has been going on since 2015 but it was put on priority list while forming the 100-agenda of the sitting government in Punjab. She agrees some provisions of the law are ambitious but adds that consultations for this law were done on a regular basis and included workers’ bodies, NGOs, labour department officials, employers’ representatives etc.

Viqar adds a lot of brainstorming was done to suggest solutions regarding proper implementation of this law. For example, she says, “the concept of hourly rate or piece rate is also there that can help determine wages of domestic worker who work at multiple houses for different durations.” Similarly, she says, an inspection system has been put in place but the difference here is that inspectors will enter houses for inspection only when a complaint has been launched. Random inspection will not be allowed as it would harm the sanctity of four walls of a house.

Another major issue in this context is lack of awareness among domestic workers about their rights and realisation among people that these workers are not their slaves. “They make a living through hard work and must be respected for their contribution,” says Ume Laila Azhar, Executive Director, HomeNet Pakistan.

Having spearheaded these consultations over the years, she believes, people are rethinking their behaviours and treating domestic workers in a better manner. “If they can leave their most precious assets — their children — with domestic workers, then why can’t they acknowledge their importance in their lives,” she questions.

Laila’s point is that respect comes first. She suggests people shall not give any favours to domestic workers in the name of charity. “Just give them the salary they deserve and they will no more be dependent on your dole outs.”

Javed Gill, former director labour and now an independent consultant, does not worry about the implementation mechanism. He says the adoption and approval of this law is a feat worth acknowledgement and emphasises that the government finally means business. Removal of difficulties in implementation will become agenda once the implementation phase arrives, he concludes.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

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