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 Labour Reforms and the Challenge of Domestic Worker Laws

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Mubashir Nadeem

Following his electoral victory in 1970, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto enacted a series of labour welfare laws. These laws aimed to improve the lives of industrial and commercial workers by addressing issues like education for their children, a worker welfare fund, cost-of-living adjustments, profit sharing, and old-age pensions.

One notable addition in 1972 was an amendment to the Social Security ordinance, extending coverage to full-time domestic workers. This theoretically entitled them to comprehensive medical care, including hospitalization and medication. However, this benefit, enshrined in law, has never been implemented effectively.

Concerned about violence against domestic workers, the governments of Punjab and the Islamabad Capital Territory enacted separate Domestic Workers Acts in 2019 and 2021, respectively. These laws aim to protect worker rights, regulate working conditions, and ensure social security.

The Acts promote dignified working environments, occupational health and safety measures, and proper terminology, replacing “servant” with “domestic worker.” However, inconsistencies exist between the two laws. For example, Punjab prohibits employing children under 15, while Islamabad allows it until 16. This raises concerns about education opportunities for these children. Additionally, Punjab sets a workday limit of eight hours, while Islamabad offers a more realistic 12-hour rest period.

These Acts borrow heavily from existing labour laws. Provisions for leave, registration, working hours, overtime pay, healthcare, dispute resolution, and minimum wage come from various sources like the Factories Act, Minimum Wages Ordinance, and Industrial Relations Act. However, applying these industrial regulations directly to domestic settings raises questions.

The Acts seem to assume a one-size-fits-all approach. They don’t differentiate between a wealthy industrialist employing a large staff and an elderly couple relying on savings to afford basic help. The same stringent regulations may not be suitable for both scenarios.

Furthermore, the Acts appear to primarily focus on full-time domestic workers, neglecting the significant number of households employing part-time help. While proponents may argue these laws fulfil Pakistan’s obligations under the unratified ILO Domestic Workers Convention, a crucial aspect remains unaddressed – ensuring children employed domestically still receive compulsory education.

The biggest challenge lies in enforcing these laws. The government’s labor departments have struggled to effectively register and regulate existing industrial and commercial establishments. Expecting them to manage the enormous task of registering and inspecting every household employing domestic workers is unrealistic.

The focus should shift from creating impressive-looking but unenforceable laws. Instead, practical solutions are needed. Public awareness campaigns could educate both employers and workers about their rights and responsibilities. Additionally, exploring alternative enforcement mechanisms, perhaps involving community-based monitoring systems, could be more effective than relying solely on overburdened government departments. 

A crucial concern lies in enforcement. Pakistan’s labor departments have historically struggled to effectively register and monitor even industrial and commercial establishments. The sheer scale of registering and inspecting every household employing domestic workers seems unrealistic with existing resources.

The message here is clear: impressive-sounding laws are meaningless without a robust enforcement mechanism. Pakistan needs to address this gap to ensure the well-being of domestic workers and the successful implementation of these well-intentioned legislative steps.

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