Recently, Punjab Assembly, in an effort to protect the rights of domestic workers, passed a legislation known as the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019. This legislation intends to enforce the rights of the people ‘providing services of a domestic nature in a household, including child care, old age, sick care or natal/post-natal care along with other work in a household.’
Pakistan, being a signatory to several different international conventions, is under an obligation not only to comply with these international laws but also to bring the articles enshrined in the Constitution into force. After the 18th Amendment, the autonomy of the federation was further devolved to the provinces. Hence, all provinces have a responsibility to enact legislation in light of international conventions, in order to translate them into the domestic legal framework.
The conventions ratified by Pakistan with nexus to this particular law are several. These include: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 1966 and a few International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions namely: Minimum Age Convention 1993, Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999, Equal Remuneration Convention 1951 and Convention on the Protection of Rights of Child (CRC).
Sindh is the first province to enact a law which recognized rights of those individuals who work within the households. Punjab followed suit and successfully passed the 2019 Act protecting the rights of domestic workers. These legislations are extremely comprehensive and very progressive, covering almost all aspects in protecting the rights of domestic workers in conjunction with the provisions of the conventions mentioned above. Furthermore, this act gives protection to household employees by recognizing their rights whereas, earlier they had absolutely no legal cover and were reduced to being ‘modern day slaves.’
The need for such legislation is underscored by the fact that domestic workers have no job contracts that define their work or the conditions under which they have to perform their duties. Very often this leads to their exploitation where they have no fixed working hours nor are they given any specific job description; they are often ordered to perform any task at any time of the day. Furthermore, most of the domestic workers have poor living conditions. Their self-respect is quite often shredded to pieces. There have been a number of cases recently where severe physical and mental abuse for minor mistakes or even for no reason was seen. This legislation was imperative to give these modern day slaves a legal cover for them to be recognized under the law and hence, for them to get their rights enforced.
The Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 has defined domestic worker as a person providing services in a household. This law has strictly prohibited the employment of children under the age of 15. Children ranging from 15 to 18 years can only engage in light work which does not harm the health, safety and education of the child.
Section 4 expressly states that no domestic worker shall be discriminated on grounds of religion, race, sex, caste, creed, ethnic background and place of birth/residence, domicile migration or for any other reason. Furthermore, the section states that the domestic worker shall be addressed as ‘domestic worker’ and not ‘servant.’ These provisions are a reflection of Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan which states that the dignity of man shall be inviolable. This article protects the transgender and Christian community who are often referred to names which are extremely derogatory in nature. Christian women who widely work as domestic workers are often discriminated on the grounds of religion and hence, this law will aid them in getting their rights enforced.
Additionally, the hours of work have been stipulated and weekly working hours are not to exceed fifty six hours. The Act has also stated the number of paid holidays and leave to which each domestic worker is entitled. There is special provision for paid maternity leave up to six weeks and reflects spirit of Article 25 of the Constitution which states that the state can make special provision for the protection of women and children.
This law is a first positive step by the government to address the issue of economic exploitation of children and women. A domestic welfare fund has been constituted under Section 22 of this act that will aim to provide social protection, safety and welfare measures to domestic workers. Furthermore, this Act has laid down some procedural provisions in order to cover any issue regarding domestic workers and their employers.
Since it is a more recent legislation which still needs a policy framework to implement it effectively, it has been heavily criticized by several experts. Child rights activists raised voice on the matter of age of children. Advocate Ahmar Majeed, a child rights activist, stated that the 15-year age limit makes the concept of protecting a minor, redundant. “No safe working conditions have been specified, or any rest hours, or anything about food, and children will be working unsupervised,” he says.
Others have criticized this law for not having a complaint mechanism or system of rehabilitation once a worker is rescued/recovered from abuse. Others disapproved it for not having a mechanism under which the employer would issue a contract, who is authorized to regulate these contracts, the clear shortage of labor inspectors for factories and how they would implement the provisions of this law.
However, the Punjab government’s effort should be applauded instead of being criticized. There are a few lacunas which can be overcome through various means. Those who criticize this law for lacking provisions of certain nature and a few sections falling short of the standard laid down in general law, overlooked the fact that it is a new law. The procedure is not as simple as passing legislation and enforcing it. The government along with the respective departments is still to make rules under this act that will ascertain the exact details pertaining to domestic workers. The rules, once made will assist in assimilating this law into domestic legal framework and its implementation.
Under Section 35 of this law, the labor inspectors are given power to ensure compliance of the provisions of the Act. The government has a liability to spread awareness to those working as domestic workers. This tedious task can be done within a two tier structure. If there are limited number of labor inspectors, then to hire new ones to bridge the gap. These inspectors should be taught and trained about this law and various scenarios can be produced before them. These inspectors, under the Act, in case of a complaint and on direction of a Dispute Resolution Committee, should subject the household to inspection by the labor inspector and file a case through a public prosecutor in a court of competent jurisdiction. They should also be assigned to carryout awareness campaigns for the domestic workers so that they are aware of their rights which are protected under this law.
While it is heartening that such legislation is being done by our legislatures, it is imperative that all legal lacunas be removed and laws implemented and enforced in letter and spirit so that the sad state of domestic workers can be improved.HH
The writer is a lawyer.
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