In Pakistan, domestic workers rally for rights

Domestic workers unions in Pakistan advocate for equal labor rights with Plan International. Plan International Pakistan, along with its partner HomeNet Pakistan, has been helping domestic workers come together to discuss their issues since 2011. Photo by: Laura Salvinelli / Plan

“When I started working at people’s homes, I faced a lot of discrimination,” says Rubina*, 35, a domestic worker from Islamabad, Pakistan. “There is no concept of a minimum wage, fixed job hours, fixed salary or overtime. There is no paid leave even if a domestic worker is with child.”

This is the reality for many of the young girls and women living in Islamabad’s slum that I work with on a daily basis. These women are forced to take on domestic work to make ends meet, offering their services in houses in posh areas of the city. It’s not an easy task — and one that is blighted with difficulty due to their lack of rights.

Why? In Pakistan, domestic work falls under the category of informal labor. That means labor and protection rights are not secure, while young girls are often vulnerable to child labor.

Forced to drop out of school, young girls take on work as domestic helpers to support their families with an income. It is not uncommon for girls as young as 12 to work in two to three houses in a single day, cleaning, doing laundry and washing dishes.

Farzana*, 12, dropped out of school to become a domestic worker. “Perhaps I was eight when I started working,” says Farzana. “Now I go with my aunt and my neighbors to work in rich people’s houses. Although I am happy I can help my family financially, I really miss the life which other girls of my community are living.”

Domestic work ‘on the rise’

Domestic work is on the rise, particularly in cities such as Islamabad. After all, urban areas in Pakistan are the engines of economic, scientific and cultural development.

Yet, in my experience, those migrating in search of better livelihoods are women. Cities are not ready to absorb this burden and it has spawned many slums and illegal settlements without basic living facilities.

As women migrate from traditional, conservative societies to urban slums, they are exposed to a new environment. Instead of enjoying the life that comes with urban living, they struggle to achieve a work/life balance — and are faced with the extra burden of having to fulfil urban costs.

The lack of access to equal education, health and income opportunities means that women have no other choice but to provide services such as domestic work.

Women are the ‘poorest of the poor’

In urban slums and shanty settlements, particularly in Pakistan, women face a range of difficulties, such as insecure housing, informal jobs, plus the double burden of household chores and access to resources. The interrelationship between culture, gender and urbanization is a complex one, where women are the poorest of the poor, because of the non-conducive urban environment.

Plan International Pakistan, along with its partner HomeNet Pakistan, has been helping domestic workers come together and discuss their issues since 2011. A union was formally created with five representatives selected from all 11 communities in Jan. 2014.

Organizing domestic workers is no easy task, believe me.

In societies such as Pakistan, women are not decision makers and women who create unions and run campaigns are not accepted. Domestic workers’ earnings are dependent on them going to work and if they take time off, they aren’t paid. So, if workers want to attend meetings to fight their rights, it will ultimately come at a cost.

Domestic workers do not fall under the definition of “labor” either, so their union cannot be categorized as a labor union. That’s why we’ve called on the help of the Pakistan Workers’ Federation, so women can discuss matters with other union members, while ensuring their voices are heard in an organized, systematic way.

The International Labor Organization is aware that domestic workers make up a large portion of the workforce in developing countries, and their numbers have increased in industrialized countries. Yet, there is still “invisibility” around their work, a lack of law enforcement and organization of domestic workers.

Slow progress

Things are progressing in Pakistan, but slowly. In 2013, the first ever bill was drafted to bring domestic workers under the umbrella of “labor” and it was presented in the senate. Two years on, a new senate has come into power and the bill is once again under scrutiny. My colleagues and I are making a concerted effort to ensure this bill is passed. However, it needs a bigger push from civil society to ensure the bill is prioritized.

Then, there’s an even bigger task. It’s not a matter of simply passing the law, but then — crucially — actually making it happen. Domestic workers need training and skills to discuss and handle their contracts with employers, to raise their voices against discrimination.

The advocacy movement is slowly gaining momentum across big cities, but the work is far from over. Now more than ever we must continue to work together to ensure women’s rights are recognized in this sector.

* Names have been changed

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About the author

  • Iffat Jamil

    Iffat Jamil is program unit manager for Plan International Pakistan’s urban program in Islamabad. She has completed a Masters in Agriculture Economics and, after wanting to extend her knowledge further, she decided to study Development Studies at Melbourne University, Australian. Iffat now works in Plan International Pakistan’s Urban Program, where she ensures children receive their basic rights, including health, education, protection and an adequate standard of living. She is passionate about children and women’s rights and is working hard to ensure the rights of domestic workers, in particular, are recognized.