The invisible workforce

April 30, 2023

Despite working in a large number of households across the country, domestic workers remain uncounted and unheard

The invisible workforce


very day, women domestic workers leave home early in the morning. They spend their entire day cleaning, washing, cooking and performing other domestic care work, moving from one house to another. These domestic workers are part of almost every household yet they remain invisible to labour surveys and implementation mechanisms established to protect labour rights in the country.

They have no formal contracts so that no rules or salary brackets apply to them. Many face abuse and harassment at workplace but lack the awareness, capacity and resources to report it. A majority of women domestic workers suffer from various health issues, which they tend to ignore, even hide, due to the expenses involved in treatment and the risk of losing their jobs. Their own domestic issues are testing in their own right – poverty, domestic violence, family health issues and drug addicts at home. There is no specific forum to report these issues.

Despite their struggles, the workload is immense. The salary is no match for it. No labour or work-related law directly applies to them. Even where certain laws or policies can benefit them, they remain unaware of those. Their work is roughly estimated but not acknowledged in any labour survey or policy.

Domestic work is part of a large informal labour sector in Pakistan. According to one estimate, every fourth household in Pakistan hires a domestic worker. A report titled Domestic Workers: Legal Protection Mechanisms in Pakistan, published by Women in Struggle for Empowerment, says that about 74 percent of labour work force is engaged in the informal sector in Pakistan, of which domestic workers are the biggest chunk. Nearly 50 percent of them are women and girls. About 29.1 percent of women aged 15 to 64 years are unpaid domestic workers in rural and urban areas of the Punjab, it adds.

According to survey findings mentioned in the report, there are about 675,000 domestic workers in the Punjab, a majority of them are women or children. It says that these women domestic workers remain invisible, vulnerable and neglected. Their earning is much lower than the national minimum wage in the country, ranging from Rs 3,000 to Rs 25,000 per month.

“On many occasions, my wage was deducted for minor mistakes. I never questioned the employers because I feared that they would dismiss me from work. I need to pay rent and fee for my child’s schooling. I would be unable to even feed my children if I lost my job,” says Yasmeen, a domestic worker who makes her way from a katchi abadi in Rawalpindi to Islamabad every day. “A big part of my salary is spent on bus fares,” she tells The News on Sunday.

In the current economic situation, losing a job is not an option for these workers. Despite the abuse they face at workplace, they go on. “Most of the time, we are hired by women in order to free them from their unpaid domestic chores. We clean their homes and wash their laundry but many don’t even treat us like humans. Where the domestic worker is a Christian like me, they even separate our utensils and keep us away from their personal things,” says Nosheen, a cleaning lady who works in six houses daily to make ends meet.

According to the report, there are about 675,000 domestic workers in the Punjab, a majority of them are women or children. The report says that the women domestic workers remain invisible, vulnerable and neglected.

In addition to the economic exploitation and discrimination, women domestic workers also face harassment at their workplace. “It is not easy to find decent employers. Some of my friends have had really bad experiences at the hands of male family members where they work. They stare at them, say inappropriate things and touch inappropriately. They sometimes tell them to work in their rooms for longer than needed,” says Rani, another domestic worker.

In such situations, the workers rarely have much choice but to leave the job. “Telling the malkan (lady of the house) about such misconduct is not an option. She inevitably blames the domestic worker, even if she knows that the family members are habitual harassers,” she says.

The ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots remains the most challenging. “We struggle to provide our children two meals a day. The abusive behaviour adds salt to the wound,” says Allah Rakhi, who has been a domestic worker for 17 years.

She says she once heard her employer telling her daughter to cover the fruit basket so that Allah Rakhi should not steal from it. “I never touched anything in their house. The accusation hurt me. A few days later, I saw rotten fruits in their garbage.”

“Sometimes we also get to work in good households. When we don’t, we have to endure a lot,” she adds.

The International Labour Organisation recognises exploitation of domestic workers as a global issue and mentions it in its convention; “domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities, and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights.”

Pakistan has ratified four fundamental conventions, two governance conventions and twenty-six technical conventions of the ILO but not the ILO Convention 189, which requires the member states to set a minimum age for domestic work besides dealing with labour rights and standards for domestic workers, particularly.

The Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance, 1965 and the Minimum Wages Ordinance, 1961 as well as The Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance include domestic workers in the definition of workers. The Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance requires an employer to provide medical care to a domestic worker. However, the government has yet to notify a minimum wage for domestic workers under this law. There is also no mechanism to ensure its enforcement.

The Senate passed the Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Act in 2017, in order to bring domestic workers under the jurisdiction of labour laws in Pakistan. The law aims to protect the rights of domestic workers to regulate their employment and conditions of service by providing them social security, safety, a health care facility and welfare. However, there is no registration authority for domestic workers in Pakistan.

“Domestic workers provide invaluable labour, yet they are often unrecognised, undervalued, and underpaid. The passing of the ICT Domestic Workers Act, 2019 and the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, are significant steps towards recognising and protecting the rights of domestic workers. However, we must go beyond legal protections and challenge the class hierarchies that perpetuate the exploitation and marginalisation of domestic workers. It is only through a radical transformation of our societal norms that we can truly ensure fair wages and working conditions for these workers who contribute so much to our homes and communities,” says Anam Rathor from the Women Democratic Front (WDF).

The writer is a reporter for The News International

The invisible workforce