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One aspect of the Aurat March 2019 which, amidst the backlash from the patriarchy, did not receive much attention was female domestic workers coming out in significant numbers to ask (among other things) for their right to fair compensation. As seen above, they asked, “Do you pay your domestic workers the minimum wage?”
This is not an unreasonable question, but the fact of the matter is that, as a society, we don’t treat our labour well. This is true for labour across sectors (agricultural, industrial, and the service sector). Labour laws are routinely circumvented, and state enforcement of those laws is lax at best. (For example, see this recent report by Human Rights Watch documenting egregious violations in the garments industry.)
Domestic work, however, is perhaps one of the most exploitative forms of labour. Globally, the ILO estimated that domestic work is the number one form of forced labour in 2017. There is little research on Pakistan specifically. In one of the only studies on domestic work in Pakistan, Haris Gazdar and Ayesha Khan find that some domestic labour arrangements “come very close to outright slavery” due to the bondage that is created by employees borrowing in advance of their salaries.
This is just one form of exploitation however. As the Tayabba torture case demonstrated, other issues abound: child labour is rampant; there is widespread verbal, sexual and physical abuse, including inhumane work hours; and wages for domestic workers are far below minimum wage. In short, they do not have human dignity.
In particular on the minimum wage, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) can be used to provide an illustration of what is a startling picture. In 2017-18, more than half of those employed earned a monthly wage that was below the minimum wage of Rs.15,000. Specifically for the category ‘household employees’, the average wage is Rs.9,272. Most remarkable perhaps is the gender wage gap: female domestic workers earn Rs.6,098, almost two-thirds below the legal minimum wage and more than half of what men earn. It is thus clearly also a gendered issue.
Further, on such low income, it is no surprise that these workers have to take on insurmountable amounts of debt, are not able to send their children to school, and suffer from poor nutrition and health outcomes.
Are Domestic Workers Entitled to a Minimum Wage?
When you ask someone if they pay their domestic workers minimum wage, their response is usually a self-serving justification that domestic workers don’t fall under minimum wage laws. This is, unfortunately, largely true (but no less morally reprehensible).
Until a few months ago, no legislation existed across Pakistan for the protection of domestic workers. Although the Senate passed a bill a few years ago, this has not yet been enacted by the National Assembly. It was only at the end of January 2019 that legislation formalizing domestic workers was passed in Punjab. This Act criminalizes work below the age of 15, stipulates that domestic workers must be paid minimum wage as set by the Minimum Wage Board, and includes several benefits, such as sick and maternity leave and pensions. The legislation is progressive and unprecedented in Pakistan. Indeed, no other province has formalized domestic work yet.
While legislation will not change things overnight, and there are serious issues of implementation, it sets an important direction for a more equitable Pakistan. In a setting where market power determines wages – and employers have all the power – legislating for a minimum wage (and ideally a living wage) for domestic workers also creates the baseline for changing social norms. One hopes the other provinces can follow Punjab’s example sooner rather than later.
Nevertheless, taking care of those who literally take care of you, your children, and your home should be the humane thing to do, even if it isn’t the legal thing to do. I would like to end by quoting from a superb recent essay in the New York Times by Princeton Sociologist, Mathew Desmond, in which he powerfully illustrates the human impact of higher minimum wages:
“A $15 minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect.”