May 20, 2021

By Xari Jalil


When the Tayabba torture case took place in Islamabad in 2016, it was shocking and painful news: a 10-year-old domestic worker – had been tortured and kept in wrongful confinement by Additional district and sessions judge Raja Khurram Ali Khan and his wife Maheen Zafar – burning her hand over a trivial issue, beating her with a ladle, locking her up in a storeroom, and threatening her of “dire consequences”. Tayyaba was discovered in an injured state with visible bruises on her body.

Shamed by civil society, the superior judiciary was forced to take the matter into its hands and the Chief Justice took a suo moto notice. Eventually, the culprits were sent behind bars, and the court ordered all the provincial governments to keep a benchmark of at least 16 years for all domestic workers.

The Punjab assembly was the first to pass legislation on the regulation of domestic work even though it did so in January 2019, two years after the suo moto.

While the battle for workers’ rights continues, even though it is late, the new law passed for the Islamabad territory, is a step in the right direction.

There is little else to stress on, except for the fact that the situation for domestic workers is dire, especially for children. The presence of a law acts as a safety net, but if it is not fully implemented, and the situation not constantly monitored, these steps will be futile.

Punjab’s law, for example, has not been able to prevent cases of sexual, mental, and physical abuse, or exploitation of domestic workers. In the case of children and their families, it is difficult to live on with the wounds and the scars that they carry after facing so much abuse. And while the abuse continues unchecked, those accused are quick to try and reach compromises so they can go scot-free.

But in the Tayyaba case, when a similar situation unfolded, the SC in January 2017, gave a strict warning specifying that “no agreements could be reached in matters concerning fundamental human rights”.

The number of cases where domestic workers are facing abuse and exploitation has possibly not gone down at all. The biggest challenge is to record the number of cases that actually take place – most go unreported. Meanwhile, children under the court defined age are still being employed.

In the Zohra Shah case that took place in 2020, in Lahore, for example, the seven-year-old girl was so badly beaten by her employer Hassan Siddique and his wife Ume Kulsoom that she died.

In January 2020, three rights-based groups – the Hari Welfare Association (HWA), the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), and the Institute for Social Justice (ISJ) – issued a joint report counting more than 140 cases of abuse, torture, rapes and murders of child domestic workers (CDWs) reported in the media during the past 10 years.

The statistics were collected from all over the country, highlighting the dangers that children faced working behind closed doors.

From the total, 79 per cent were reported from Punjab, 14 per cent from Sindh, six per cent from Islamabad and one per cent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The report also says that for the child domestic workers every single year was horrible but in terms of reporting of their torture and abuse the years of 2013, 2017 and 2019 were the worst, in which 21, 27 and 19 cases of abuse with child domestic workers were respectively reported in the media.

Domestic workers in Pakistan form a considerable portion of the informal economy; the International Labor Organization (ILO) states that there are 8.5    million domestic workers in Pakistan. A gender breakup by Labour Force Survey shows that domestic work comprises 60 per cent women and a significant incidence of child labour.

It is the patriarchal structure that has caused this kind of confinement of women’s bodies and labour to the domestic sphere. Because of conservative social norms, women’s employability is seen in domestic work in a private space. But it is this private space that can become a place of invisible exploitation and abuse.

The biggest issue remains that all domestic workers continue to be invisible with no one to monitor them or protect them. It is only a hope that Islamabad law works on its implementation mechanism.

In any case, the Islamabad Act, like the Punjab Domestic Workers’ Act will have turned domestic labour into formalized work, which is a milestone.