Domestic Workers

Giving rights to millions of domestic workers in Pakistan

Promoting Gender Equality for Pakistan, an ILO project funded by the Canadian government, is working with tripartitie partners in Punjab to bring rights and recognition to domestic workers.

Feature | 26 February 2015
“We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work,” says Sumaira Salamat, a domestic worker from Lahore. And now, with the formation of the first trade union for domestic workers in Punjab, Sumaira’s hopes are one step closer to being realised.

The Domestic Workers’ Unions was registered by the Department of Labour Punjab under the Punjab Industrial Relations Act (2010) on 20th December, 2014. There are currently 235 members, 225 of whom are women including the President Ms Komal and the Vice President, Ms Shamshad Merry.

Along with forming the trade union, Pakistan Workers’ Federation has also drafted a model employment contract for domestic workers in consultation with government and employers. The contract stipulates employers’ and employees’ rights and responsibilities, in terms of working hours, leave, accommodation and wages.

The model contract will be piloted by the Women’s Development Department Punjab who are working with the ILO to train and help place 1000 women as skilled and certified domestic workers under the Government of Punjab’s Women’s Empowerment Package. Training is being done by the All Pakistan Women’s Association, the largest and oldest women’s activist organisation in Pakistan in partnership with the College of Tourism and Hotel Management, Lahore, against agreed competency standards, and will be certified by Punjab Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority. The Women’s Development Department Punjab will also work with APWA to establish a placement and grievance redressal mechanism.
Domestic work takes place inside people’s homes, ... so it is often not even recognised as ‘work’. Many employers think that they are in fact doing a favour on those that they employ, rather than the other way round.

The Department of Labour Punjab is supporting the initiative by examining how social protection schemes can be extended to domestic workers. Interestingly, domestic workers are already covered under the old-age benefits law, but not enough people know and those who do have little idea on how to access such schemes. The Department of Labour Punjab hopes to use the learning from this pilot programme to help develop a policy for domestic workers.

Domestic work might be one of the biggest sources of employment in the informal economy. As women, men, girls and boys, move from villages to towns in search of employment, and with little skills and education to get into better paying, less exploitative jobs, many find themselves veering towards domestic work as the only option. Though there are no firm figures, it is estimated that there are at least 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan, many of whom are women and often children. Almost all middle class families in the country engage some form of domestic help, and though these workers take care of the things that are most important in life – homes, children, food – their work goes unrecognised and uncounted.

“Domestic work takes place inside people’s homes, not in formal workplaces, so it is often not even recognised as ‘work’”, explains Tahir Manzoor, Director, Labour Punjab. “Many employers think that they are in fact doing a favour on those that they employ, rather than the other way round.”

Of course, not all employers are exploitative or evil. “I would be very happy pay domestic help higher wages if he/she had the skills I am looking for. Domestic work should be considered a proper profession with different specialisations, and people should be trained and given certificates. That would benefit both domestic workers and their employers”, suggested one of the employers who has been part of the group that reviewed and endorsed the competency standards the Women’s Development Punjab is using in their programme. “Working women like me rely on having well-trained, dependable, reliable help at home. Only then can we go out to work.”

Domestic work is a critical source of employment for millions of girls and women. Many of them take pride in what they do. They take care of the things that constitute the very fabric of our lives. We need to make sure these workers receive the dignity, the treatment, the salaries and the respect that they deserve. This requires more than conventions, and laws and programmes. It requires a seismic shift in our social attitudes, and that is a shift that seems to have finally started.