Abdullah Imran Qureshi
Shaqoor Ahmad and Rafiqa Shaqoor sit with their two youngest daughters at their home in Lahore, Pakistan. Ms. Shaqoor is a domestic worker, as are three of the couple’s six children.

‘Are we not humans?’ Pakistan’s domestic workers confront abuse.

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When Pakistan’s largest province passed legislation in 2019 that provided legal rights and social security to domestic workers, reformers cheered. But two years on, relatively few domestic workers have registered for social security and most continue to work without contracts.

Most domestic workers are women, including some underage workers. Activists say it can be difficult to convince them of the benefits of registering with the government, in part because they often work for multiple households and don’t want a single contract. 

Why We Wrote This

Legal reforms can provide protection to domestic workers, but changing social attitudes is much harder, as Pakistan’s experience has shown.

But the biggest problem is employers who resist the idea that their domestic staff are workers with rights and protections. Elaine Alam, secretary-general of FACES Pakistan, a nonprofit rights group, says Pakistan’s economic elites need to change their attitudes. This includes lawmakers who were reluctant to legislate for the rights of women who toil around the clock in well-off households. 

“They employ domestic workers themselves and didn’t want to be held accountable for how much they pay their workers or what conditions they keep them in,” she says.

Last month, when Samina Farooq, a domestic worker, learned that a fellow female worker in Lahore had been beaten by her employer for spilling milk on the floor, she went to see her. Her message: You should quit now. 

Bibis [female employers] beat us for dropping milk on the floor or deduct a portion of our salary if we mistakenly burn a piece of cloth when ironing. Are we not humans? Can’t we make mistakes?” says Ms. Farooq. After the employer acknowledged that she had treated her maid unfairly, the maid agreed to stay on.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that Pakistan has more than 8.5 million domestic workers, mostly women and children. Some suffer appalling abuse at the hands of their employers. Last year an 8-year-old girl was beaten to death by her employers in Rawalpindi for letting their parrots escape.

Why We Wrote This

Legal reforms can provide protection to domestic workers, but changing social attitudes is much harder, as Pakistan’s experience has shown.

Activists have long complained that in addition to high-profile abuses, domestic workers are routinely exploited behind closed doors, without any of the protections and benefits provided to formal workers.

So, when the province of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous, passed a law in 2019 that barred child labor in homes and extended labor law and social security to all domestic staff, it was hailed as a landmark reform. But the Domestic Workers Act, a first for Pakistan, hasn’t lived up to its promise because of resistance from employers, lax government oversight, and, perhaps surprisingly, lukewarm support from domestic workers themselves. 

As of early 2020, the provincial government had only registered 7,000 domestic workers, far behind their target of 50,000. Most workers are still hired informally with no limits put on their hours.

Elaine Alam, secretary general of FACES Pakistan, a nonprofit rights group, says this slow progress on registering domestic staff shows that laws alone cannot improve the conditions of these workers; the social attitudes of Pakistan’s economic elites toward them also need to change. This includes lawmakers who resisted the reforms for years as not being in their own interest, she says.

“They employ domestic workers themselves and didn’t want to be held accountable for how much they pay their workers or what conditions they keep them in,” she says.

Activists say female workers are often hired for one task and then ordered to do many more, while earning less than male cooks and cleaners. “The patriarchal nature of our society exploits and benefits from these workers being females,” says Ume Laila Azhar, who directs HomeNet Pakistan, an advocacy organization for domestic and home-based workers.

Domestic Workers Union
Samina Farooq (fourth from right) takes part in a rally by the Domestic Workers Union in Lahore, Pakistan, on May 1, 2019. Ms. Farooq has worked for more than a decade as a domestic worker.

Why child labor persists

Rafiqa Shaqoor works as a domestic worker in Lahore and lives in a small, dilapidated, one-room house just outside an upscale residential community where she cleans two houses. She has six children, three of whom are also domestic workers – all underage – while the other three, aged 5, 6, and 11, are considered too young to work.

When approached for an interview, Ms. Shaqoor refuses shyly, asking her husband, Shaqoor Ahmad, to talk.

“We want our children to go to school, but I also can’t afford for them to not work. How are we going to survive this inflation if we all don’t work?” says Mr. Shaqoor, who used to work as a rickshaw driver before his rickshaw got stolen. 

While child labor is illegal here, it remains common. Across Pakistan, around 264,000 children are employed as domestic workers, according to ILO estimates. 

Mr. and Ms. Shaqoor left their village and moved to Lahore three years ago in search of economic opportunities and hoped to enroll their children in school. But their dreams have not been realized.

Their oldest daughter, 15, works as a live-in housemaid, on call around the clock. She only gets a day or two off a month – which is when she visits her parents – and earns 9,000 rupees ($55) per month, less than half of Punjab’s minimum wage.

Mr. Shaqoor recognizes that his daughters are employed illegally and might be facing exploitation at work, but he says the family needs the money that they earn as maids.

“I will make them leave work in a few years when it’s time to marry them off,” he says. 

Fighting abusive practices

Ms. Farooq has been working as a maid in Lahore for more than a decade, working without a contract and carrying out chores like cleaning or washing dishes. After seeing how workers like her are treated, she joined the Domestic Workers Union in 2015 to fight for their rights. She argues that the best way to combat workplace violations is to boycott abusive employers.

“When these households don’t find any workers, then they will realize our value,” she says.  

The union has trained Ms. Farooq on how to negotiate a fair salary, what her rights are under provincial laws, and how to respond to mistreatment.

In addition to being a domestic worker, Ms. Farooq now also works to educate her peers about their legal rights and explain why they should register with the government’s social security system so they can receive health benefits and a pension.

She also recommends that all domestic workers informally fix remuneration rates for their local neighborhood and not work for anything below that.

“What I have learned is that what I am getting paid is the remuneration for my hard work, and not a favor that my employers are doing,” she says. “Our wages are already pretty low, so even if they give me food or tip me on special occasions, I am not indebted to them.”

Fear of the unknown

Ms. Azhar, from HomeNet Pakistan, believes that attitudes toward domestic workers will not improve unless employers change their minds, which is a hard sell in Pakistan since most well-off households see maids as their social inferiors. She objects strongly to how employers justify long hours for live-in workers by arguing that they get free food and accommodation.

Still, she remains hopeful that the Domestic Workers Act may lead to more discussion of worker rights among employers.

However, activists say that many workers don’t wish to become part of the formal workforce – the objective of the 2019 law – because they aren’t sure they want to be under contract to one household. In addition, few fully grasp what benefits they would get as a result of contractual employment.

“There is also reluctance from the side of domestic housekeepers for they fear that instead of being able to work at multiple houses and make extra money, they might be restricted to one house with certain hours. They don’t understand how this bill will apply to them, so they fear the unknown,” says Ms. Alam, of FACES Pakistan.

Ms. Farooq says that having formal contracts is not practical until the government strictly enforces the minimum wage. For now, she wants to work on raising awareness of exploitation among domestic workers, many of whom don’t realize the extent of abuse in the profession.

“These rich households spend 20,000 rupees on one dress they wear, but when the same amount is mentioned as minimum wage for us, the bibis grab their heads crying that it’s not realistic. They can afford to pay us more, they just don’t want to,” she says.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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