Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 is a win for attempting to regulate a section of the informal economy of Pakistan along with enshrining rights to a rather neglected but a very important segment of the community. These rights are extended to all domestic workers, however, a question that stands out is whether this Act truly protects minors introduced into working?

Domestic work is considered by the International Labour Organization as one of the occupations with the worst working environment and benefits yet it remains a critical source of employment. Almost all middle-class families in the country obtain some form of domestic help. As a consequence, thousands of low-income strata families from rural areas prefer to send away their children to earn livelihood rather than providing them basic education in these formative years of their life. This helps parents to secure basic necessities in life. In this, the children are the sufferer as their work not only goes unrecognized and uncounted but often these children due to their fragile physical and mental state remain vulnerable to physical abuse and torture. This is evident from infamous case of Tayyaba, a 10-year-old girl, who was misused, abused, battered and burned by her employers leaving her scarred for life or a more recent case of Faiza Yasin, a 13-year-old, “domestic worker” who was allegedly tortured, raped and murdered by her employer this month.

The Act categorically restricts children under 15 years age to indulge in any work whatsoever. Children under 18 years may extend a helping hand in light work which is part-time and not hazardous to their health, safety and education. Whoever knowingly contravenes with the above, shall be liable to punishment with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month if he employs a child under the age of 12 years and in case of a child under 15 years by fine which may extend to Rs fifty thousand but which shall not be less than ten thousand rupees.

However, in our undocumented society certain fundamental issues may arise at procedural and a practical level, which may make the implementation of this Act rather difficult. How does one ensure that minors are not illegally, or in connivance with the parents, forced to work in households despite such laws existing or to establish whether children are actually above 18 or are not being burdened with work which is affecting his/her education or health? Moreover, children like Tayyaba, how do they come forward and report if facing abuse. It is vital to take into account the illiterate and poor background these children hail from.

Another important aspect that needs to be highlighted is the fact that often parents despite knowing of the circumstances and law, allow their children, even at times coerce them to stay in such working environments as it benefits them financially. In this, the fear of disappointing the parents and lack of understanding of the law together with the desperation and need for more money silences the vulnerable children. Even in case of abuse, it is very easy to silence their voice by offering a little more remuneration– “the hush money”.

Successful implementation of the Act requires policy and development in this area but more so a seismic shift in social attitudes of the society. The Government must successfully provide for the section of the population that is unable fulfil basic necessities so the mindset and desperation of branching out their children to toxic houses end.

Secondly, proper education must be ensured. The law would in itself have no practicality if the people for whom it is aimed are unable to comprehend it and their rights or are not willing to benefit. A mechanism must be put forward that assists the vulnerable children to report any incident or workshops in this regards must be carried by NGOs.

In addition, mental therapy must be given to any minor or adolescent or for that matter any individual who has faced any verbal or physical torture by their employer. Removing them from the toxic position is the first step, followed by penalizing the culprit. This, however, must be followed by psychological counselling and rehabilitation for the victims.

Another way forward could be through the incorporation of companies who must be licensed to provide domestic services and therefore must ensure that households are abiding by the law including wage and safety standards. This way forward might have a better chance of ensuring that children are not employed illegally.

As per a recent judgement, a specific direction is issued to the concerned departments that the Act be implemented by being reflected in Punjab Government Rules of Business, 2001 and to make all the rules to enable the Department to apply the law in letter and spirit. It is hoped that with effective directions and policies, there will be a better chance that the Act is implemented for the betterment of domestic worker especially children whose voice is rarely heard.

Failing this, only way left would be if by a stroke of luck such an incident comes to light through some form of social media, as a consequence of which, the children would be removed from the toxic household and returned to their parents. However, parent’s negligence or desperation for money may again put them back in a likewise environment that they were in the first place. Thus, the cycle will continue.