Abusing the powerless

Editorial Board
Wednesday, Jul 26, 2023

In 2017, the case of Tayyaba, the 10-year-old child who was tortured while employed as a domestic helper by an additional sessions judge, exposed the darkness and exploitation that is all too common in elite Pakistani society. Here was a child who was not only being forced to work in contravention of laws on child labour but was being severely abused both physically and mentally. As the case progressed, we saw how there is one set of rules for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else. Tayyaba was not the first nor the last child helper to go through such cruelty. Today, in 2023, we are once again faced with the story of a 13-year-old girl employed as a domestic worker by a civil judge in Islamabad being subjected to severe torture and violence, allegedly by her employers. The girl was sent to work at the judge’s house in Islamabad six months earlier by her father.

Although there are several official acts that set minimum standards and requirements for domestic workers, including age requirements which the victim in this case did not meet, given the frequency with which child domestic workers are reported to be abused and mistreated, it is clear that enforcement mechanisms are not up to par. In addition, the International Labour Organization report from July 2022 estimates that a quarter of all Pakistani households employ child domestic help and the majority are girls aged 10 to 14 years. This is despite the fact that employing domestic help under the age of 14 years is prohibited by acts in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and prohibited under the age of 15 in Punjab. In Islamabad, the employment of child labour is not allowed under the Islamabad Domestic Workers Bill 2022.

It is not surprising that these laws are being flouted with such impunity as most domestic workers are unregistered and lack any official contracts. How does a child with little to no education, far from home, totally dependent on his or her employers for survival and mobility and lacking any official paperwork, access legal support? The financial power that employers hold over domestic workers, who are predominantly poor and marginalized, is the biggest weapon our class-based system uses against the working class and the poor. In some cases, the domestic worker might be bonded labour, leaving them even more powerless. Then there is the whole question of what so many children of school-going age are doing as domestic help in the first place. Where is their constitutional right to an education? Certainly there is a need for the reform of laws and better implementation of laws on child labour and violence against children. But even that will not be sufficient until we finally accept that those who are not privileged deserve the same rights and protection under the laws as everyone else.