Punjab government delays legal protection/recognition to domestic workers

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Lahore: Punjab government’s effort to provide legal cover to the rights of the domestic workers is being seen with skepticism because of the procedural hurdles and non-seriousness of the government in implementing the existing labour laws.

According to an unofficial estimate, there are 8.5 million domestic workers throughout Pakistan.

No particular law covers the rights of the domestic workers. Nevertheless, a reference to their rights is available in the Minimum Wage Act 1961 and the Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance 1965.

The Minimum Wages Act includes “domestic work” in its definition of “worker”. While under section 55-A of Social Security Ordinance “Every employer of a domestic servant is liable to provide medical treatment at his cost.”

In the last five decades, neither the central nor the provincial governments have been able to implement the laws as mentioned above.

Labor was a federal subject before the passage of 18th Amendment in 2010.

In a rare ruling, the Lahore High Court, on December 10, 2015, directed the Punjab government to enforce the Minimum Wage Act 1961, to protect the domestic workers’ right to get the minimum wages set by the government.

The ruling had come in the wake of a petition filed by Subay Khan, a domestic worker, against the highhandedness of the employers who treat their workers as domestic slaves.

So far, the Punjab government is in the process of drafting Punjab Domestic Workers’ Policy, 2015.

Secretary Women Development Department Punjab Amna Imam told News Lens Pakistan that the policy would be approved soon and shall be announced on March 8, 2016 to mark the International Day for Women.

To Farooq Tariq, General Secretary, Awami Workers Party, government’s reluctance in giving legal cover to the domestic worker is a reflection of its anti-worker policies. On the face of it, he says, every government sympathises with the working class but in reality, he adds, every government has failed even to implement the minimum wage law.

“Private sector is awash with the violation of minimum wage law. Even teachers are not paid as per the legally stipulated wage what to talk of domestic workers,” says Tariq.

According to the study carried out in 2013 by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, 56 percent domestic workers in Punjab only earn Rs 1,000 to 2,000 per month (around 10 to 20 dollars).

The study reveals that a majority of the domestic workers comprises women who are forced to sustain families due to poor economic condition and unemployed spouses contributing little or at times nothing to the household expenses.

Farzana Begum is a full-time domestic worker in a house at Scheme Mor Lahore. She is drawing Rs 4,000/month.

“Since I am provided with a serving quarter, therefore, my employer expects me to be at her beck and call. Even my sixteen-year-old daughter is supposed to help me out with the household chores,” Farzana told News Lens Pakistan.

Roma Rashid, a 15-year-old girl, washes dishes in two different homes. From both the houses, she could barely make Rs. 4,200.

“I come from a marginalized family. My parents have died, so I have to sustain myself by earning. I have never been to school; therefore, I had no choice but to become a domestic worker.”

Not a single domestic worker News Lens Pakistan met knew anything about lawmaking on domestic workers’ rights.

Dur-e-Shahwar, Chief Operating Officer, All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) told News Lens Pakistan that it might take years before the law gets through the Punjab Assembly.

“It is a significant toll. It is not a matter of giving the domestic worker the status of a worker. Unless a system of registration, training and job placement is created, the domestic workers will remain unrecognized in spite of all the laws,” said Shahwar.

Shahwar said that 90 percent of the domestic workers, she had worked so far with for training purposes, did not have National Identity Cards.

APWA is training 1,000 women as skilled and certified domestic workers under the Punjab government’s Women Empowerment Package financed by Department of Foreign Affairs; Development and Trade (DFATD), Canadian government.

Another person involved in the training process told News Lens Pakistan, on the condition of anonymity as she is not supposed to talk to media in official capacity, that the government had been reluctant to spend money on the training of the domestic workers.

She said, “We initially spent Rs 24, 000 on the training of each domestic worker, later this amount was slashed down to Rs. 13,000. Most of the funds she said were diverted towards other projects such as the ‘laptop’ scheme.”

There is, however, a consensus among all stakeholder that the labour department does not have the capacity to implement the law.

When News Lens Pakistan contacted Director Law and Policy at the Directorate General of Labour Welfare Punjab, Ghulam Abbas Cheema, he confirmed that the department was short of funds, staff and other essential facilities such as transport, etc.

“Over the last twenty years, the number of factories in Punjab have risen from 4,000 to 16,000, however, the strength of the labour officer is still the same, 83. The same is the case with the labour inspector. One can imagine the number of shops in Punjab however we only have 73 Inspectors to monitor them.”

“We are working on the issue of domestic workers. It will take some time to make things happen. Our staff is not trained, and here we are talking about monitoring households, which can be challenging,” said Cheema.

Shamim-ur-Rehman, Advocate Supreme Court Pakistan does not see Punjab government’s effort in protecting domestic worker going any far.

Talking to News Lens Pakistan on phone, he said that the government did not believe in the consultative process rather it goes for a quick solution that may or may not suit Pakistan’s work environment or condition.

He said that as a stopgap arrangement, the government could have included domestic workers within the definition of the worker in its legal parlance for recognition of the domestic workers, “I believe that the problem is mindset of the legislators. Unless they are sensitized towards the improvement of the domestic workers, no law will make any difference.”

For the first time, the Domestic Workers’ Union was registered at the Department of Labour Punjab under the Punjab Industrial Relations Act (2010) on December 20, 2014.

There are currently 235 members, 225 of whom are women including the President Roma and the Vice President, Sameena Farooq.

Sameena, in her chat with News Lens Pakistan, said that lawmaking would take a long time. “We know it is going to be an unpredictable journey. We are still at the policy stage, but we are hopeful of getting, at least, recognition as workers.”

She said that funds given for the training of domestic workers should have been released directly to the people concerned and not to the NGO’s such as APWA because it was here that most of the money was swindled or diverted to other projects.

“I had asked APWA to open training centers in different localities for an easy access. However they refused, and now the women have to travel miles to reach APWA, that too, without any stipend which was promised,” said Farooq.

Dr Javid Gill-Project Director, Integrated Project, Government of Punjab, says that being a significantly large sector the domestic workers’ regulation could pull them out of the poverty cycle.

If applied, he said, the law of minimum wage would make workers costly for the general household, therefore, reducing their demand in the real sense. In the event of layoffs, he said, the government can provide the domestic workers small loans and rope them into the entrepreneurial spin.

So far, says Rehman, the domestic workers do not know if they feature anywhere as a dignified workforce. In the absence of this spirit, no law will make a difference in their lives.

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