The Lahore High Court on Thursday ordered the Punjab government to pass pending legislation on domestic workers. If implemented, The Domestic Workers Bill, 2018, will be the first ever legislation to grant labour protections to domestic workers.  The bill has gained praise particularly for its firm stance against child domestic workers.

The Bill provides substantial legal rights and protections to domestic workers, which they previously could not avail. It criminalises the employment of children under the age of 15 as domestic help and states that the domestic workforce shall not work over the mandatory eight hours a day. It guarantees a range of rights to domestic workers, including a good work environment, sick and maternity leave, 10 days’ paid leave for festive holidays, injury benefit, disablement pension and survivor’s pension.

In the past, there had been efforts to bring domestic work into the realm of proper employment, with implementation of standard working hours, minimum wage and ban of child workers, yet those efforts have mostly fizzled out due to strong cultural and commercial barriers which incentivise child labour. Where this bill holds the potential to be different and bring actual change is in its making necessary of a letter of employment, which has to be approved by the Inspector having jurisdiction in the area. Enshrining the terms of employment in a contract makes it easier for domestic workers to demand their rights and hold their employer accountable.

 Previously domestic workers were not granted the protection of labour laws as other labourers were since domestic workers simply did not come under the definition of a “workman” under the Industrial and Commercial Employment Ordinance 1969 (Standing Orders), which is the basis for all labour laws in Pakistan. This meant that domestic workers were not privy to the privileges afforded to labourers by the labour courts. Female domestic workers were also particularly vulnerable to intimidation or threat of termination of employment due to harassment or sexual abuse from the employer, to which they could only take refuge under criminal laws, and not under the Standing Orders.

Drafting the bill was the easy part- now the Punjab government must take initiative on this issue and ensure the bill becomes law and is implemented. A law on Domestic Workers had been passed by the Senate in 2015, yet due to lacklustre effort, never became law. The Punjab Government needs to ensure that this 2018 Bill does not suffer the same treatment.