Child labour in the home

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN June, ILO adopted Convention (189) on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that is something historic since it enters the informal sector setting out standards to improve the condition of those working in a household or caring for families.

In Pakistan most of such workers are women, unskilled, illiterate and oppressed, hence open to exploitation. But what about the children who work in homes? Their number is not accurately known and since the practice of employing little children is socially accepted there is no societal sanction against it. ILO believes that every fourth household in Pakistan employs a child for domestic work.

The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) describes domestic child workers as “victims of exploitation behind closed doors”.

Sparc’s report The State of Pakistan’s Children 2010 has horrifying stories to tell. It says that last year, 10 children doing domestic work in homes were subjected to violence and killed by their employers. Another eight were brutally tortured.

These incidents made no more than a ripple. Thousands are murdered in the country every year, one may say, so why care for these 18? Shazia Masih’s case, however, created a sensation in the electronic media for a while. The 12-year-old girl from an under-privileged Christian family had allegedly been sexually abused and tortured by the family she worked for. She died in hospital.

The media created a rumpus. The autopsy report had spoken of torture. Nevertheless, that did not prevent the medical board that was appointed from certifying that the child had died of malnutrition and infection. This case also faded from public view soon thereafter when the employer was acquitted and a compensation paid by him to Shazia’s family. The employer was a former president of the Lahore Bar Association.

I have personally heard horrifying tales of parents selling their girls to be employed as domestic workers for a year — although this is prohibited by ILO conventions. For 12 months, the child has no contact with her family. Public attention has focused on the issue only when a child dies or is severely injured. But no one even notices when children are underfed, made to work excessively long hours while being denied their right to education, healthcare, leisure and protection from sexual abuse. Worse, the child is starved of love and emotional security.

It is not considered an act of perversity when the employers’ children receive special treatment while the suffering child worker remains a silent onlooker.

Now that Convention 189 is in place will the situation improve? Pakistan voted for the law but it has to ratify it. Even then, will it be implemented? The main question to be asked is if this will have any impact on child domestic labour.

Technically, international conventions check child labour and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Pakistan is also a signatory, makes it compulsory for member states to observe the rights spelt out, some of which, such as compulsory education, rest and leisure, and freedom from punishment and torture, if observed, would make it impossible for a child to work.

ILO Recommendation 146 lays down standards that humanise child labour, for which the minimum age is stipulated to be 15. This will make child workers in Pakistan invisible and all the more vulnerable and in need of extra protection. Convention 189, however, holds out a ray of hope for children 15-18 years of age who work in homes. Their employers are obliged to provide them education. One should add that they should be provided additional emotional security because of their tender age.

How hopeful can one be in Pakistan? The families of the children are poor and deprived and invariably large. They believe that their child is better off when working in the home of a person who provides her food for work. The employers prefer children as workers because they are pliable, do not argue, can be bossed around and do not protest. Employers believe that they acquire ownership over the child who works for them. That explains why sexual abuse and violence are so common.

This makes it so important that domestic legislation be enacted to regulate child domestic labour. Laws to prohibit the employment of children under 15 should be strictly enforced. It should be the employers’ responsibility to provide the under-18 education, healthcare and adequate rest and recreation. Enacting such laws is not enough. A mechanism for monitoring domestic labour should be devised and the authority to launch complaints stipulated in Convention 189 (Article 17) should be set up.

The grave implications for society of subjecting children to the rigours of domestic labour are not understood. Neuroscientists who have been doing research on the human brain are now convinced that a child’s experiences in the early years of his life shape his brain.

In an interesting article I read in the London School of Economics’ magazine for its alumni, Connect, Prof Nikolas Rose, who is the director of the school’s BIOS Centre, wrote: “While many have long argued for the importance of early childhood it is claimed that this is crucial for the development of the brain … [and] neuroscience now shows objectively that major public investment in intensive input into families in the early years will pay great dividends in averting later problems and the individual, social and economic cost associated with them.”

24 thoughts on “Child labour in the home

  1. While working toward removing the social and economic disparities that are the root cause of this ill, our society must work towards creating opportunities for informal learning by these unfortunate kids. This can take the form of starting home schools, low cost tutoring, internet cafes and small libraries, supported by communities and the government, but always monitored closely by the community.

    1. Good idea. Creating facilities f9r such children might also induce some employers who are possibly a bit uneasy to appease their conscience by arranging for the education of the child they employ in their homes. We have to act on all fronts,

  2. It is amazing we live in 21st century and Condone stoneage behaviour. How could a Bar Association President get away with it. Because he is a lawyer? What we need is TOTAL CLEANSING of the NATION, We are no longer the land od PURE, hence the name PAKISTAN should be changed!!! We are now being discussed along side of Haiti, Somalia. Are we Proud of that.


  3. This is an excellent article. Somehow the discussion and information on this topic is limited to a few English dailies and magazines. There is an urgent need to spread awareness amongst all by using other language publications and also television on a regular basis.

  4. i am agree with this point that poor parents send their children to other home to work as children get food .this practice is very common in rural area where there is no concept of paying for work.even they give food in order to get blessig of God .content of article is very clear and situation of child rights is more grim and serious.Mass awareness and practical steps needed from government and civil society to ensure protection children right.

  5. A very sad article with chilling details. One can only imagine the horrors that go unreported because the child doesn't die but is certainly scarred for life. In regards to child labor exploitation and lack of education, Pakistan must rank very high on the world scale and it is shameful. Think global and and act local must be implemented by every educated, able Pakistani. Every second that is wasted is literally the life of a child getting trashed and wasted.

  6. Child labor has been a chronic problem confronting the poor segment of the society. The developing countries are grappling with that problem but no substantial solution has been founded so far. Despite technological advancement and civilization the human society is yet groping in the dark with regard to human rights. It is incumbent upon social scientists and philanthropists to rise on the occasion and devise such a mechanism to address the issue of the child labor once and for all.
    Here in Pakistan the situation of child labor is appalling.The fragile economic condition of the poor people is the major factor attributed to child labor.

    The poor child does not carry out the domestic chores as a pastime rather he/she does it under compulsion to add the income of his/her family

  7. Yes, this seems to be the first step : ” —-This makes it so important that domestic legislation be enacted to regulate child domestic labour. Laws to prohibit the employment of children under 15 should be strictly enforced. It should be the employers’ responsibility to provide the under-18 education, healthcare and adequate rest and recreation. Enacting such laws is not enough. A mechanism for monitoring domestic labour should be devised and the authority to launch complaints stipulated in Convention 189 (Article 17) should be set up.—”

    Can one go beyond legislation,please ?

    Surely, those who are in a social position to employ children in their wealthy homes,

    are educated folk.

    Can their moral consciousness not be sharpened and made sensitive to the negative impact of such exploitation. Legislation is needed. More than that , can we have

    some enlightened compassion, a bit of applied spirituality, to look at the plight of


    I can suggest one very practical process. When this is discussed and tabled and

    accepted, all seems fine. However, in my humble experience, no one is serious about

    its implementation.

    The solution : See ,every living area has at least one school, private and otherwise.

    In the evenings, say after 6 pm, all these day-schools shut down for the day.

    So, lets use these school-premises for running EVENING-classes and NIGHT-schools for those kids who have to work in the day-time.

    All it requires is a set of teachers who are willing to make the sacrifice of time and

    energy to educated the under-dog.

    Institutions agree to this, quite willingly, because in theory all the resources are present in schools between 6 pm and 9 pm——–unfortunately, human nature is

    selfish when a sacrifice of potential personal ” domestic-time ” is asked for.

    It is the moral duty of all employers to improve the educational status of those

    who they put to work. Legislation is just a legal expression of such an ethical

    stand point.

    1. Absolutely. We have to work on all fronts, but awareness has to be created at all cost. Of course it is debatable whether consciousness raising should precede legislation or should follow it. I think they should go hand in hand

  8. Dear Madam Zubaida,

    This refers to your article on the domestic child labour appeared in the Dawn. It is indeed a time to raise vigorous voice for the rights of children lving behind the walls. I am thankful to you for the concerns and solidarity you have shown with most neglected and miserable sactions of working children. Your heart touching words and mind blowing rationale would definitely shake the conscience of decision makers. I am looking forward to read another article covering legislative gap that is being seriously realised. Children can only be protected once there is law. Unfortunately, we do not have any law that may provide socio-economic protection to Children who are forced to work in the homes in conditions like slavery.

    1. True Salam there is need for a law. Pakistan has accepted C-189. I hope the government will sign and ratify the convention soon and follow it up with the required law. Though even after that it will be a constant struggle to get the law implemented. In the case of domestic child labour it will be even more difficult because children are in no position to fight their own case. As it is they are oppressed by their parents and their employers!

  9. sometimes i really don't believe that we r living in this era,,it should be called stone-age. why these parents give birth though they know that they can't brought up their children.Of which sin these children getting punishment, their shameless parents are curse rather than a blessing…. May Allah lead such kind of people to the right path..

    1. I understand your feeligs. But I think those who exploit the helplessness, ignorance and "shamelessness" (to use your word) of these parents are also to blame — may be more — because their circumstances are better and they can avoid employing children. Who is forcing them? They are the ones who need to be shown the right path.

  10. With no disrepect intended, this article appers to be a 'patch work' of unsubstantiated information available on the internet. The fate of the childeren addressed in the article is solely driven by the economic predicament of their famalies. I think that our columnists should be a little more circumspect when addressing some socio-economic problems faced by a segment of our society. Anything which our senior journalis and columnists write is often misused by some unfriendly foreign media in defaming my beloved country. At times I wonder who's agenda our columnists and senior journalists are promoting? Zubeida has a point of view, but I disagree with her.

    1. Thank you for taking the time out to read this article and commenting on it. Please be assured that not any information is unsubstantiated or has been randomly lifted from the web. The only thing I got from the web was ILO's convention 189 which I read on ILO's website, I don't think that has been made up. Besides many of our friends working in the Labour sector addressed press conferences on the convention. I agree with you that the children who work as domestics in the homes of rich people are sent by their families who are very poor. But then poverty is a problem that must be addressed and how can it be done if it is not highlighted? Besides, if a person is poor does that mean that he should be exploited and maltreated. Rather than make a child work why not pay him a stipend? What I write is based on my personal knowledge or based on information obtained from organisations working in the field, in this case SPARC. As for the issue of defaming the country please read my article on The image and performance. You will find it on this website. I hope you will look around you and recognise the problem and then help us find a solution to it. Without admitting that a problem is there, you will not be able to find a solution. Thank you again.

  11. A check is very important. Just yesterday my maid got fired from another house she used to work at because the woman there insulted and yelled at her 10 year old daughter. My maid was crying and telling me that we work so hard so that our children do not starve and people with children themselves have no regard for our children. It's a shame. That woman is a master's graduate and wife of a wealthy businessman. Even the educated class has no respect for people who care for their most precious asset, home!

    1. Thank you Forbidden Fruit for recognising the problem. I fully agree with you that the culprits in most cases of child worker abuse are women because they are dealing with the domestic worker on most occasions. Where men are involved the reported cases are of sexual abuse. It hurts most to see the discrimination.

  12. May be I have not been able to put mt point accross properly. With ineffective laws on slander and defamation and uncheked freedom of expression, some of our jounalists and columnists get away with making most sensational statements in the print and electronic media. The so called experts ( I call them 'know nothings') whom we see on television night after night, at times make such damning statements about Pakistan that in my judgment they should be held for treason. In the absence of an effective peer control, olur media needs to demonstrate more responsibilty and not offer fodder to some foreign media to malign Pakistan. I am sure Zubeida watches television talk shows, as our televion channels have nothing else to offer, and she also reads the print media, I want to know how comfortable she feels after seeing such damning statements about Pakistan? Afterall she is a Pakistani as I am, and she must have the same feeling for her country. The point I am making is that the media must identify and control the 'blach sheep' within.

    1. Naseem Sahib that has been better put and I agree a lot with what you have to say about the media, especially television. Since I am a media person myself, I understand all the weaknesses that you have so correctly identified. But I have very strong reservations about how you tar everyone with the same brush. I hardly watch television and speak up against what is not good about it (See my artjcle on television and mental health on this website and you will not say that we mediapersons don't realise what the media is doing. As for the problems I write about are all verified and there is no sensationalism in them. My idea is to highlight issues and then help people look for solutions. Since my journalism is about social issues that can be changed by the people I manage to make a dent. Now take this child worker issue in the home, you can make a difference yourself. If you have a child doing housework in your house please find an adult to work for you. As for the child take her under your wing. Give her a stipend to help the family and facilitate her education. If you are a principled person who doesn't employ children please persuade someone you know who employs children not to do so. And do take a child under your patronage to help the child and her family. That is what my journalism is all about and I think I can contribute to my country more in this way rather than hiding everything under the rug to project a false image, Thanks and I know you will agree that we need to act. .

      1. Keep it up, ma'am….you are doing fine…." You might not be able to solve the World's Problem by your Activity, but when you help even one person, you become part of the Solution, and that is Achievment."

        1. Thanks Nooruddin Sahib. You understand this because you are doing the same in spite of the problems you face

  13. I really do agree with every one of the concepts you have made available on your article. They are incredibly persuasive and can absolutely perform. Continue to, the threads are so brief for starters. Might you please increase them slightly coming from the next time? Wanted post.

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