*By Minahil Khan
In partnership with Women in Law South Africa (WOZA) and Women in Law Initiative-Pakistan
Informal work remains prevalent in Pakistan with a large part of Pakistan’s population working in private households. Domestic work in Pakistan is highly feminized, and within this sector it has been observed that women are extremely vulnerable to human rights violations with cases of sexual abuse, violence, lack of job security, and non-provision of minimum wages.
In recent years, the Provincial Assembly of Punjab, the superior judiciary and civil society organizations have shed light on the plight of domestic workers and tried to bring them within the ambit of the law. With the promulgation of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019, there is now a law that adequately brings domestic workers within the realm of the law by mandating that domestic workers be registered with the Punjab Employees Social Security Institution and given employment contracts specifying their wages and responsibilities.
The Act also makes provisions for minimum wages, prohibits the employment of children under 15, calls for non-discrimination as well as social security protection through a Domestic Workers Welfare Fund. While the actual implementation of the law has been called into question, the Lahore High Court has directed the provincial government to ensure enforcement of the law. However, this law only extends to Punjab, with the other provinces relying on a patchwork of law and policy relating to healthcare, maternity and minimum wage.
Despite the passage of new laws and increased awareness on the correlation between business activity and human rights, domestic workers find themselves in a legal vacuum where they are subjected to gross human rights violations. This is further exacerbated by COVID-19, the global pandemic which has left entire countries and resultantly households teetering into economic collapse.
In addition to the health emergency posed by the novel coronavirus, the financial toll taken by this is also exponential, the effects of which are manifested at a grass-root level through increased incidents of domestic violence, lack of job security, non-payment of wages and non-provision of adequate healthcare for domestic workers. This stems primarily from the lack of a formal relationship between the employer and the employee and the absence of a registration mechanism whereby employees’ access to adequate healthcare, job security and provision of wages remains unregulated. This poses significant challenges for domestic workers who are already marginalized because of their gender and economic status.
For many women, the virus brings with it the inability to work in multiple houses which causes a loss of earning. For those women who continue to work in these circumstances there is the risk of contracting the virus, spreading it to other members of the community and not having adequate healthcare. In addition to the uneven power dynamics involved in domestic work, unawareness regarding the law and socio-cultural barriers hindering women’s access to justice, the coronavirus further impedes access due to sporadic availability of transport and an increased workload on women keeping them from leaving their places of employment or homes.
Keeping these issues in mind, it becomes essential for there to be legislative and policy intervention to ensure that domestic workers are given their due rights. While COVID-19 brings into light fluid challenges and knee jerk responses by governments, it also highlights some of the glaring problems within our legislative infrastructure, especially in relation to the vulnerability of women. Financial packages are important at this stage, but they also have to be coupled with a long-term strategy to ensure that the rights of workers are adequately safeguarded in the face of the ongoing pandemic and also for future disasters.
*Minahil Khan is a Research Fellow at Research Society of International Law, Pakistan. She is researching on human rights issues particularly the intersection between business activity and human rights.