"We should be protected by Pakistan's labour laws so we have job contracts, defined hours, salaries, pensions and other benefits," says Rubina. "We can then help our children to have a better future."
Sixty-Six Quarters slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, is home to 35-year-old Rubina* and her family. Rubina dropped out of school as a child because her family could not afford the fees.
For Rubina, domestic work provides an income so her 3 children can go to school and gain an education. It also lets her treat her children when she can.
Two to three females from each family in the slums are thought to be involved in domestic work – even though it is seen as a demeaning profession. However, many do not have a choice.
Raza,15, has been a domestic worker since she was 10. Many girls work in several houses per day - cleaning and doing the laundry. They earn on average 4,000 rupees ($40) from each house, per month.
"When I started working at people’s homes I faced a lot of discrimination; there is no concept of a minimum wage, regular job hours are not fixed, there is no fixed salary or over time," says Rubina.
Seeing the impact domestic work has on women and children in the slums, Plan and partner HomeNet Pakistan organised groups for women to discuss the issues they face and learn about their rights.
With the support of the Pakistan Workers Federation, representatives from each of the 10 communities have been elected to form a Domestic Workers Union. Rubina is now union president.
Young girls and women from Pakistan’s slums who have been forced into domestic work are rallying for their rights, blogs Plan International’s Iffat Jamil on World Day Against Child Labour, 12 June.
“When I started working at people’s homes, I faced a lot of discrimination,” says Rubina*, 35, a domestic worker from Islamabad, Pakistan. “There is no concept of a minimum wage, fixed job hours, fixed salary or overtime. There is no paid leave even if a domestic worker is with child.”
This is the reality for many of the young girls and women living in Islamabad’s slum that I work with on a daily basis. These women are forced to take on domestic work to make ends meet, offering their services in houses in posh areas of the city. It’s not an easy task as Rubina can testify and one that is blighted with difficulty due to their lack of rights.
Why? In Pakistan, domestic work falls under the category of informal labour. That means labour and protection rights are not secure, while young girls are often vulnerable to child labour.
Forced to drop out of school, young girls take on work as domestic helpers to support their families with an income. It is not uncommon for girls as young as 12 to work in 2 to 3 houses in a single day, cleaning the house, doing laundry and washing dishes.
Farzana*, 12, from Islamabad, dropped out of school to become a domestic worker. “Perhaps I was 8 when I started working,” says Farzana. “Now I go with my aunt and my neighbours to work in rich people’s houses. Although I am happy I can help my family financially, I really miss the life which other girls of my community are living.”
Domestic work on the rise
Domestic work is firmly on the rise, particularly in cities such as Islamabad. After all, urban areas in Pakistan are the engines of economic, scientific and cultural development.
Yet, in my experience, those migrating in search of better livelihoods are women. Cities are not ready to absorb this burden and it has spawned many slums and illegal settlements without basic living facilities.
As women migrate from traditional, conservative societies to urban slums, they are exposed to a new environment. Instead of enjoying the life that comes with urban living, they struggle to achieve a work/life balance as they are faced with the extra burden of having to fulfil urban costs.
Due to a lack of access to equal education, health and income opportunities, women have no other choice but to provide services such as domestic work.
Poorest of the poor
According to the World Urban Forum (2004), poor, urban women are marginalised because of gender and social and physical conditions. In urban slums and shanty settlements, particularly in Pakistan, women face a range of difficulties, such as insecure housing, informal jobs, plus the double burden of household chores and access to resources. The inter-relationship between culture, gender and urbanisation is a complex one, where women are the poorest of the poor, because of the non-conducive urban environment.
Plan International Pakistan, along with its partner HomeNet Pakistan, has been helping domestic workers come together and discuss their issues since 2011. A union was formally created with five representatives selected from all 11 communities in January 2014.
Now, organising domestic workers is no easy task, believe me. In societies such as Pakistan, women are not decision makers and women who create unions and run campaigns are not accepted.
Domestic workers’ earnings are dependent on them going to work and if they take time off, they aren’t paid. So, if workers want to attend meetings to fight their rights, it will ultimately come at a cost.
Domestic workers do not fall under the definition of ‘labour’ either, so these women their union cannot be categorised as a Labour Union. That’s why we’ve called on the help of the Pakistan Workers’ Federation (PWF), so women can discuss matters with other union members, while ensuring their voices are heard in an organised, systematic way.
Recently, there has been a spike in membership to Domestic Worker Unions and conventions have been taking place rights as per International Labour Organization (ILO)’s defined article C-189. The ILO are aware that domestic workers make up a large portion of the workforce in developing countries, and their numbers have increased in industrialised countries. Yet, there is still an ‘invisibility’ around their work, a deficit in law enforcement and organisation of domestic workers.
Things are progressing, slowly. In 2013, the first ever bill was drafted to bring domestic workers under the umbrella of “Labour” and it was presented in the senate. The bill had lot of observations and various human rights lawyers inputted into the bill, suggesting improvements.
Two years on, a new senate has come into power and the bill is once again under scrutiny. My colleagues and I are making a concerted effort to ensure this bill is passed. However, it needs a bigger push from civil society to ensure the bill is prioritised as convincing parliamentarians on passing such a bill is not an easy task.
Then, there’s the bigger the task. It’s not a matter of simply passing the law, but making it happen – which is much more crucial. Domestic workers need training and skills to discuss and handle their contracts with employers, to raise their voices against discrimination. The advocacy movement is slowly gaining momentum across big cities, but the work is far from over. Now more than ever we must continue to work together to ensure women’s rights are recognised in this sector.
Read about Plan's global child protection work
*Names have been changed