CHILD labour is more pronounced in the informal sector compared to the formal sector. In Pakistan, over 12 million children are engaged in labour as cited in an HRCP report. Most of the children, especially girls, are employed by households for domestic work on a part-time or live-in basis. ILO estimates that around 8.5m people, predominantly women and children, work as domestic workers. Although Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits slavery and forced labour and engaging children under 14 years in “hazardous labour”, child domestic labour is rampant. ILO estimates that over 264,000 children across Pakistan are employed as domestic workers.
The practice of employing children for household help is prevalent across Pakistan. Despite being a signatory to Article 182 of ILO, that puts a ban on all forms of child labour, the government has severely neglected the rights of child domestic workers. It lacks a robust policy framework on child domestic labour. Some lawyers and academics argue that The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, addresses issues concerning child domestic workers. However, the Act only mentions the minimum age as 15 years, under which no child should be employed as domestic workers. It fails to address the grievances of children mistreated by employers.
A comprehensive law and policy framework needs to be introduced in Punjab as the existing Act is not adequate to address the grievances of child domestic workers. A comparative analysis of laws stating the minimum age for child labour reveals discrepancies even at the provincial level. While Section 3 of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act states that “No child under the age of 15 years shall be allowed to work in a household in any capacity”, the Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2015, of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa states that “no child [under 14 years] shall be employed or permitted to work in any establishment”. Similarly, the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act states that “no child [under 14] shall be employed or permitted to work in any establishment”. This shows that notwithstanding the fact that Punjab has not promulgated a child-specific domestic workers act, it is still a progressive piece of legislation when reviewing it through the lens of the minimum age acceptable for child labour.
Punjab must enact a law specifically on child domestic workers.
The Punjab government must take steps to promulgate a law governing the issues of child domestic work. The law should make 18 years the minimum age for labour and employment of domestic workers. In certain circumstances, it could allow domestic work even at 16 years provided employment does not deprive workers of compulsory education or interfere with any opportunity to take part in further education or vocational training.
The Constitution states that no child shall be engaged in hazardous work. The Punjab Restriction of Employment of Children Act, 2016, lists the nature of work considered hazardous, but does not cover any work such as dealing with electric washing machines, ironing equipment and gas instruments undertaken by child domestic workers. The law must identify and include within its purview the nature of hazardous work that child domestic workers are required to do.
Moreover, in cases of maltreatment meted out to child domestic workers, the Labour & Human Resource Department and Child Protection & Welfare Bureau have to build strong mechanisms for the provision of free legal assistance to victims. A complaint mechanism should be built or the existing helpline 1121 of the bureau be used to refer cases of child domestic labour abuse to the relevant authorities.
Presently, it appears that Labour & Human Resource Department and Child Protection & Welfare Bureau in Punjab are operating in isolation, hence a strong camaraderie must be developed among these departments to take up the provision of legal assistance to abused child domestic workers. The departments should adopt appropriate penalties for child domestic worker abusers and ensure facilitation of access to justice and legal redress. Besides, Punjab’s Labour & Human Resource Department must be entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out effective labour inspection that is authorised by law to enter residential premises where domestic labour is employed and to enforce provisions that are applicable to the sphere of domestic work.
The process of formulating law on child domestic workers should be consultative and encourage recommendations from government, civil society organisations and provincial lawmakers. It is pertinent to note that any piece of legislation on such workers is incomplete if it fails to incorporate the demands of child domestic workers. Therefore, the process of formulating the law should be inclusive and participatory, engaging with child domestic workers as agents of change.
The writer is a development consultant based in Lahore.