Sumaira Salamat, a mother of three in her mid-40s, works every day from ten in the morning until half-past two in the afternoon. She travels between three homes, and in each one she dusts, sweeps, washes utensils, and does the laundry. For her efforts, she earns about 3,000 rupees (29 dollars) per month. Salamat is one of Pakistan’s estimated 8.5 million domestic workers. Few have fixed working hours, benefits, pensions and proper contracts. Abuse is a frequent occurrence, and the laws governing domestic work are murky. In 2013 alone eight children working in homes died, likely from overwork or abuse. Substandard working conditions are one of the primary grievances of employees in this sector. Many are lured into homes with the promise of a good life and a decent salary. What they find when they arrive is something altogether very different. Long hours of work and low pay are not the only issues. Many female workers complain that they are always the ones held accountable for any loss of money or valuables in the home.
Things are changing. Pakistan’s first domestic workers trade union has been recently formed.
“We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work,” Salamat explained.
The bulk of the industry is fueled by a steady stream of mostly uneducated rural women who flock to urban centres in search of work. Their hopes of securing a better future, however, are often dashed when they realize their earnings fall far short of even the minimum wage, which is fixed at 10,000 rupees (about 97 dollars) per month in provinces like the Sindh, home to over 30 million people. Except for mention of domestic workers in two legislations, there is no specific law protecting their rights in Pakistan, says Zeenat Hisam, senior research associate at the Karachi-based NGO Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research. The two pieces of legislation in question are the Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance 1965, which states that “employers of a domestic servant” shall be liable to provide medical treatment “at his own cost”; and the Minimum Wages Act of 1961, which covers those employed as domestic labourers. Despite these provisions, “the government has never notified the minimum wages applicable to domestic workers under this law in the last 53 years,”
Last month, Pakistan’s minister for Inter Provincial Coordination introduced the Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers (Amendment) Act 2015, which, if passed, will see wages of so-called unskilled workers increase from 97 to about 116 dollars per month in all the provinces. But there is no guarantee that domestic workers will benefit from it, since there are no mechanisms with which to check implementation.
In December 2014, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the very first Domestic Workers Trade Union.