Child domestic labour: slavery in Pakistan
Illustration: Skyla Baily

CW: child abuse and mild graphic language

Child domestic labour is a grave issue in Pakistan; according to an ILO report in 2004, there were 264,000 child domestic workers employed in the country. In the wake of population explosion, increased poverty and stagnant wages over the decade, it can be safely deduced that the current figures are in the multiples of that in the 2004 study. The lack of recent reports may be owing to the fact that our law doesn’t recognise child domestic labour as a form of child labour.

Child Domestic Labour refers to domestic work undertaken by children under the legal minimum working age, or by children above the legal minimum age but under the age of 18, under  slavery-like, hazardous or other exploitative conditions.

Cultural background

From observation , child domestic workers come from poor rural and urban families, and are often the children of adult domestic labourers because children are expected to follow their parents’ footsteps in a particular trade from an early age, or they are children given in bonded labour. 

Poverty and unemployment remain the major causes of child labour, with caste and community background,  little to no access to free education, and local beliefs and tradition such as, the education of girls being placed at a lower priority to boys, serving as vital factors perpetuating this issue. Also, children from large families are more likely to work because the parents’ income is insufficient to support a large family.

It is believed that a notable proportion of child domestic workers in the country don’t have written contracts. Lack of written contracts put the child domestic workers at the mercy of the employers, young and vulnerable children depend on the honesty and goodwill of the employers to be given pay and good working conditions. They also aren’t often privy to the terms and conditions from their employers regarding the recruitment.

In Pakistan, a large fraction of these domestic helpers suffer verbal, physical and psychological abuse at the hand of their employers along with maltreatment. However, for the most part people refrain from reporting such cases and they go undisclosed in the media, either because of the nature of the abuse or the social position of the employers. The emotional toll of child labour include depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, guilt, and shame. This leads to antisocial behaviour and  a higher risk of mental illnesses.

Illustration: Ella-Rae

The facts

According to a report that compiled the statistics of abuse, torture, rapes and murders of child domestic wokers across the country from the media over the past decade, 96 children have been tortured and raped, and 44 have been murdered.”Of those 140 children, 48 (34 percent) children were ten years old and below, 56 (40 percent) children between 11 to 14 years old. And 36 (26 percent) children between 15 to 18 years old.” Keeping in mind that these statistics were based on the media reports, the actual numbers are likely to be much higher since many of such instances go unreported.

The complex nature of legislation and law surrounding child labour leads to loopholes and inconsistencies that employers take advantage of. As a federal policy , Pakistan’s government has banned hazardous labour under the age of 14. Although the 18th amendment raised the minimum age of work up to 16 years, without amending the labour laws, contradictions are rife. More recently, the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 specifies the minimum age for employment as 15 years. A child above the age of 15 but under 18 may be employed only for light work. Light work is defined as all such activities which do not negatively impact a child’s health, security and education. This also means that children above 15 may be engaged for part-time work until the completion of compulsory education. 

The human cost

Despite a handful of laws protecting the rights of child domestic workers – for improving their safety and ensuring a better working environment, better wages and more appropriate working hours – their safety isn’t guaranteed. It is difficult to implement these laws, and to ensure that action is taken against anyone who transgresses them. There have been numerous instances in which the culprits have walked free without any legal action against them either because they had powerful contacts in the judicial system or they were able to silence dissent through money. In the case of Bano, a 13-year-old girl, who was thrown out of a window by her employer , leading to her death six months later the matter wasn’t pursued in the court because her father agreed to a settlement with the employer worth 300,000 PKR, the question arises: Why?

Why is it that the child domestic workers who are being abused don’t get justice until someone decides to post a picture/video of them on instagram that goes viral, and the whole nation urges the government to take some action? This happened about 10 months ago when the team of Sar e Aam, a Pakistani television show which exposes different kinds of crimes, rescued a child maid,  who was being physically abused by her employers, after someone posted a video of her on social media; and recently in the case of Zohra Shah, an eight year old helper, who was killed by her employers for mistakenly releasing two costly parrots from their cage,  the news got widespread attention and the employer was arrested.

Why is it that no action was taken against someone who strangled a 15-years-old domestic servant? Why was 16-years-old Uzma‘s life cut short? Why is it that reports aren’t even filed against the employers for abusing child domestic helpers? As a nation we must decide what we would rather do; succumb to the pressure from abusive employers and the ruling class or protect the next generation from the horrors of child slavery.

A call to action

Child domestic labour has existed for too long; a privilege for people from wealthy backgrounds to have someone to help with household tasks and a compulsion for the poor to be able to survive. We think of ourselves as modern people, who have different mindsets , thought processes and beliefs than our elders and previous generations so why haven’t we yet left the practice of employing children as domestic helpers in the past too? This practice is so ingrained in our culture, it seems impossible to eradicate; until the government takes a straightforward and serious stance we will continue to see this happen.

There are some organisations in Pakistan that are working to reduce child labour and have been raising awareness of the exploitation of children in the country, such as International Labour Organisation, UNICEF , Save the Children and  SPARC. We need to stop hiring children below the minimum age, remove them from hazardous work, reduce the working hours for child domestic workers and support their education, create awareness around this area and raise our voices against these wrong-doings.

It is time that we urgently addressed this issue.