From The Unheard – Protecting the Rights of Domestic Workers in Pakistan

Domestic help is the largest source of employment with women and children as key players in underdeveloped countries like Pakistan, despite of being an informal sector. This is one of the oldest source of employment as we see domestic helps in the oldest of the civilizations that ever existed on the face of earth.

It is no secret that domestic workers work overtime, are underpaid and often mistreated. Despite of employer’s acute dependence on the employee, the employer doesn’t believe the employee is an equal human being and treats the employment as a favor to the employee. To treat the domestic workers with respect means to pay them minimum wage rate and not just the polite conversation.

Trapped in the vicious circles of poverty and illiteracy, many people have no choice but to work as a domestic help in cleaning, cooking and caregiving in other’s houses. This job is easy to get, does not need any education, skill or documentation but it brings in so many disadvantages with it like long working hours, low pay, limited social and legal protection.

About 8.5 million people are engaged in domestic services according to International Labor Organization (ILO). However this number is also not registered one. The interesting point in domestic services is that both employee and employer are women. Here the relationship of employee-employer is gender free, but is developed on the basis of class and social difference. Patriarchy denotes the role of a woman is a caretaker and a homemaker and thus this domestic service is outsourced to another woman. Men and women of upper and middle-class community benefit from the labor of domestic workers which is highly undervalued and underpaid type of labor. One of the cons of this labor is it’s occurrence in a household – a personal space of the employer – which beings in the risk of precarious working environment exposed to exploitation and abuse and sometimes even unnoticed harassment.

In Pakistan, domestic workers are mainly females or children. Another subcategory of domestic labor is bonded labor where children under 14 years of age are employed under a debt bondage. According to an ILO study, almost 264000 children are working under the debt bondage where nothing is paid to them and their services are a payback to the debt their parents have taken years ago. The amount of debt would be minimal but the years of services, inclusive of emotional abuse and overtime work goes on for decades.

The work is further classified as live-in and live-out (specifying day based or task specific employment type). According to the Labor Force Survey 2019, there are 0.46 million domestic workers in Pakistan out of which 0.364 million are task based and all others are live-in where they work without task and time boundaries. According to ILO, this is the worst kind of employment where a child is working under a debt bondage, tirelessly, day and night and lives a confined life in the premises of employer.


The capitalist economy heavily depends upon the labor of working women especially engaged in the domestic work. Women contribute the major portion of labor force in case economy and they receive minimal acknowledgement against their services. This strengthens the capitalist loop of exploitation. The increasing economic inequality forces women to engage themselves in risky work environments for a minimal wage rate. They have to choose between the basic life necessities or the work environment, so they choose the life necessities and comprise on the exploitative working conditions/environments.

Until 2019-despite of its popularity- there is no legal framework established to protect the rights of domestic workers as this profession did not fall under the legal definition of a worker. Punjab Assembly in January 2019, passed the Domestic Workers Act, which regulates the wages, provides health and security cards and some measures to avoid exploitation at workplace. However this law is still unenforced unfortunately.

The capitalist economy heavily depends upon the labor of working women especially engaged in the domestic work. Women contribute the major portion of labor force in case economy and they receive minimal acknowledgement against their services. This strengthens the capitalist loop of exploitation. The increasing economic inequality forces women to engage themselves in risky work environments for a minimal wage rate. They have to choose between the basic life necessities or the work environment, so they choose the life necessities and comprise on the exploitative working conditions/environments.

Local domestic workers union is also formed and is operative in some cities of Pakistan, which gather the domestic workers on some local points and let the workers share their economic grievances. The union leaders there, actively take part in registering the members through an Android app launched by Punjab Employee Social Security Institute (PESSI). This app registers and issues social security cards on priority basis. Although, the work is slow, but in start the progress of every movement is slow.

Although better than having nothing in place, the idea of an online regulatory system for domestic workers does not sound as promising as it should, considering the socio economic condition of the workers it is made for. Many domestic workers strive for third time’s meal, and having access to android phones and technology plus education to feed the relevant information is far from their approach. They are perhaps the most stressed part of our society. Many domestic workers lack access to information about their rights only, and they don’t believe the system even if they have the information. This disbelief is a must, looking at the non-compliance of Domestic Workers Act since January 2019. If the government wants to regulate the domestic workers in true sense, it must, in any case educate the workers about their rights through small scale education hubs and complaint points where they can raise their voice and share their grievances on community levels to pull them out of invisibility.

It is important that the rights of domestic workers be regulated and enforced by law.  The bill passed in 2019, which has not been enforced yet, seeks to enforce minimum wage rate for domestic workers, stops the employers to call the domestic workers as “servants”. These little steps if enforced in real terms will help eradicate poverty and will bring in self confidence among the workers about their rights in the society. The minimum wage rate is Rs 20,000, and in case of violation, employers will pay a minimum fine of Rs 10000 along with the difference between the amount paid and minimum wage rate.

There will be a mandatory letter of employment before a domestic worker is employed, specifying the tasks, terms and conditions, timing and wage amount, and no workers can be forced to work over and above what has been decided at the time of contract. The minimum age is set at 16.

Although delayed, this is encouraging to know that government is taking interests in protecting domestic workers across the country. As a first step, the government needs to announce and spread awareness about the existence of protection using media and engaged local unions in the cause. The first domestic workers union was registered in Lahore in 2015, more need to be registered. Middle and elite class needs to be aware that they can no longer exploit poor class through the power of money and status.

With the hope of implementation of this Domestic workers Act, we look forward to a better society with increased human rights and a better economy, but hoping for the legal enforcement is not all we should do. Charity begins at home, and after this read, let’s promise ourselves to be the best employers for the domestic workers at our Homes.

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About Aisha Khaliq 2 Articles
Aisha holds an MS degree in Project Management, is a banker by profession and a humanitarian by heart. In an effort to play her role in shaping Pakistan’s future, she raises her voice through her pen to spread awareness on religious extremism, women’s rights, and barrier’s faced by women in their career growth. Aisha’s work gets frequently published in Hilal for Her, The Navy News and The News Tribune.