Child labour in domestic work is a widespread phenomenon across Pakistan. One in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly children in the age group of 10 to 14 years, according to a study conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2022.
It is important to distinguish between child labour in domestic work and children performing non-hazardous household chores in their homes in reasonable conditions under supervision. Performing household chores such as changing the bed, tiding the room, cleaning the table are an integral part of family life and of growing up.
Domestic labour involves children performing household chores while working in private homes. Child domestic workers are vulnerable to hazards such as carrying heavy tools, handling dangerous items like knives and hammers, using the stove to make tea, and using toxic chemicals to clean. They do not have defined working hours and are unable to access education and healthcare. Moreover, children working as domestic labourers are at risk of malnourishment, unreasonable confinement to the premises of the employer, and sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, the practice of employing children as domestic workers has become a norm in Pakistani society. It is seen in a positive light as a protected and non-stigmatized type of child labour, and is perceived as less cruel than others forms of employment, such as children working in brick kilns or factories. Child labour in domestic work is socially and culturally accepted in society, despite being explicitly illegal in some provinces.
In Punjab and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), Section 3 of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019 and the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act, 2022 prohibit the employment of children under the age of 15 (Punjab) and 16 (ICT) years from working in a household in any capacity. The two laws mirror each other to a significant extent. For example, both laws mandate “…dignified working conditions and occupational safety and health measures’’ under Section 4 titled, ‘Rights and entitlements of domestic workers’.
In Balochistan, the Balochistan Employment of Children (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 2021 is applicable. Section3(2) prohibits a child or adolescent from being employed or permitted to work in the processes mentioned in Part II of the Schedule. ‘Domestic Child Labour’ is mentioned in serial no 38 in Part II of the Schedule.
Nevertheless, in Sindh, children are not explicitly provided protection from domestic work. The Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2017 specifies a “child” as a person who has not attained 14 years of age. Children under 14 years are not allowed to work as laborers in any establishment (Section 3 (1)). However, the Act defines “adolescents” as “a person who has completed his 14th but has not completed 18th year of his age”. It is prohibited to employ adolescents to work in any hazardous work included in the Schedule of the Act (Section 3(2)). As per the Schedule, hazardous work includes spice grinding, shells and manufacturing, wool cleaning, etc. The Act does not provide protection from domestic work. Therefore, there is a lack of adequate protection provided to child domestic workers and the offenders are usually allowed to go scot-free.
Children are often forcefully employed in domestic work in a bonded labour system by their guardians after receiving ‘peshgi’ (advance) even though the Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 2015 has abolished the practice of the bonded labour system. Section 4 of the Act says, “…bonded labourer shall stand freed and discharged from any obligation to render any bonded labour. (2) No person shall make any advance under, or in pursuance of, the bonded labour system or compel any person to render any bonded labour or other form of forced, labour.’’
Also, the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2018 was introduced with the purpose to combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children. The law defines ‘child’ as a person who has not attained the age of 18 years. It is applicable across Pakistan.
As outlined above, children employed in domestic work are not able to attain education. While Sindh has enacted the Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2013 (also granted to children under Article 25-A of Pakistan’s constitution) – which grants every child of the age of five to 16 years the fundamental right to free and compulsory education in a school (Section 3 (1)) – it is rarely implemented.
Section 328-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) penalizes ‘cruelty to a child’. In the Tayyaba torture case, where a 10-year-old survivor employed in domestic labour in Islamabad was abused, the Supreme Court maintained one-year imprisonment given to convicts under Section 328-A (P L D 2020 Supreme Court 146). In the absence of any explicit law providing comprehensive protection to children working as domestic labourers, this section can be utilized to punish the offenders.
Organizations such as the Legal Rights Forum (LRF) provide free-of-cost legal assistance and psycho-social support to victims/survivors/complainants of child domestic labour and child sexual abuse under the existing legal landscape. However, the enactment of an explicit law in Sindh will provide child domestic workers with greater protection and ensure that they are not subjected to abuse or exploitation by stipulating strict punishments for the offenders and providing explicit protection mechanisms for the domestic workers.
In June 2016, the Committee on the Rights of the Child provided concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Pakistan, it urged Pakistan to eradicate all forms of bonded and forced labour of children and develop programmes and mechanisms to identify and protect child victims of forced labour, particularly bonded labour as well as child labour in the informal sector, including domestic work.
Article 4 of the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2017 allows the government to amend the Schedule by notification in the official gazette. Therefore, the Sindh government should urgently add ‘domestic child labour’ as hazardous work to the Schedule by notification in the official gazette to protect children from being employed as domestic workers. Further, comprehensive legislation to protect domestic workers (similar to one in Islamabad and Punjab) should also be enacted.
The writer is a barrister. She tweets @RidaT95 and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org