A Maid’s Work

Jan 2014

Domestic work around the globe is perceived as work with low economic value and an extension of unpaid household duties that hardly gets any recognition for the work performed.1 Historically domestic work for others’ households has remained a principal way of earning a living for women. Affluent families in both developing and developed countries engage local and migrant women domestic workers to perform daily household chores.  Pakistan is one such developing country where women in large numbers are employed as domestic workers. Domestic service in Pakistan is an unorganized and unregulated form of work. Women enter into domestic service for varied reasons such as poverty, illiteracy and lack of resources that leave women with no choice but to enter into this occupation. Women also perform this low-skilled and low-paid economic activity because the male breadwinner is unable to fulfill his role as a result the burden of providing for the family’s basic needs falls on her shoulders.

The female domestic worker’s main duties include cleaning, cooking, caring for the elderly and looking after the children, whereas men work as gardeners, drivers and gate keepers/guards and sometimes as cooks. There is no fixed wage structure for full-time, live-in or part-time domestic workers and it varies according to localities, economic status of employer and the type of work performed. As a full-time domestic worker they earn around three to five thousand rupees per month whereas live-in-workers are paid between eight thousand to nine thousand rupees. Part-time domestic workers who work for two to three hours and carry out only one task, for example cleaning, laundry or dishwashing earn between fifteen hundred to two thousand rupees per task. This type of work is called ‘chuta kaam’ or part-time work.

Domestic service in Pakistan is based on an informal verbal contractual arrangement between the employer and the worker. There is no written contract and domestic workers find jobs by word of mouth through friends, neighbors and relatives who are domestic workers in different residential areas. There are very few employment agencies facilitating domestic workers. The employment agency only keeps personal details of the domestic worker, consisting of a copy of the identity card, fingerprints, address, and the employment form — which does not include any details about working hours, wages, holidays etc. — duly attested by the area councilor. This record is given to the area police station and a copy of it is kept by the employment agency. This record and the employment agency can thus serve as means of tracking/monitoring employees. However, most prospective employers also do not approach employment agencies as domestic workers are easily available and they consider paying fee to the agency as waste of money.

As there is no fixed wage structure for domestic workers under labor legislation, wages vary according to the position of the employer and their residential areas. Time schedules also vary according to the needs of both the employer and the employee. For example, while a full time worker starts at 8am or 9am and finishes by 5pm or 6pm, live-in workers have an early start and finish late at night. Live-in workers usually have one day off per week, fortnightly, or sometimes per month depending on the will of the employer. They can often be worse off as they are usually asked to do extra tasks that may not be part of their job. In addition, not only are they asked to be available almost twenty four hours, seven days a week but they are not allowed appropriate breaks.

In Pakistan, domestic work stands at the boundary of public private divide. What is considered to be the workplace for one is the home of the other. For domestic workers someone else’s private space becomes the public sphere, or in other words the employer’s household or private sphere becomes the workplace of the domestic worker.  Claims made by the employers that domestic workers are ‘part of the family’ often become a mere rhetoric when domestic workers are physically or sexually abused and treated in a degrading and humiliating manner.

On the other hand ‘home’ also becomes the site of the interplay of intimate human relations. Domestic workers while working for a period of time develop a bond of mutual dependence, love and affection for whom they work. These bonds of affection however, can be exploitative and may entangle workers in arrangements not in their best interest. Compromises, for instance in terms of working hours or ignoring their own rest period or weekend for the sake of employer who wants them to take care of the children as employer needs time for herself.  This shows that when the ‘home’ is a ‘workplace’, the public and private, the professional and personal, and the familial and non-familial become entwined and blurred. What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility and her capacity for love.

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Employer-employee relationship is a contractual relationship based on power in which one party is much stronger and more influential than the other. The power relationship is reflected both in the direct abuse which these women face and also in the degrading and demeaning status attached to this type of work. As a result the employer-employee relations in domestic service are imbalanced, and leave the employee in a very weak position. Their low socio-economic leaves them powerless even to negotiate. There is hardly any regard for their services, and employers do not treat them respectfully. The only recourse domestic workers have is to leave the job and look for another. However they leave the job only as a last resort when it simply becomes impossible to work for such an employer. In the absence of any regulatory framework, quitting the job is the only option available to them. The control of the employers over their employees’ lives is clearly visible in the way employers decide and organize the employee’s working hours according to their own lifestyle and convenience, totally ignoring the domestic worker’s basic rights such as right to rest and right to privacy.  The employer-employee relationship is also fraught with constant suspicion, which amounts to denying dignity and respect to the employee.

Domestic service in Pakistan also creates class hierarchies. The relationship of upper- and middle-class women employers and their working class domestic workers demonstrates that privileged class women exploit their employees due to the differences in class status. Employing domestic workers also involves social prestige, whereby employing more than one domestic worker has become a status symbol. The class inequality is also enacted and affirmed in the ways employers address domestic workers and vice versa. The workers are not called by their actual names but as maasi, mai, Ayah, babbo, jamadarni, and employers by titles such as ‘begum sahib, baray saab, sahibji, or khanji(Madam and Sir)’ that reflect class hierarchies and the employers’ higher social status.

Another aspect of the class dynamics appears in the form of employers’ expectations of the domestic workers to be submissive and always docile. Such compliance and subordination could be in the form of communication between the two: the way employers remind domestic workers of their inferior position because of their poor economic status, their illiteracy, and low caste. Domestic workers are forced to believe that they belong to the lowest social category, that their work is neither valued nor given due respect and recognition.

Domestic service in Pakistan has also become an intergenerational activity with the second and third generations from an early age involved in domestic service, often employed in the same household. The domestic work done by the ‘girl child’ is not seen as exploitation of child labor and provisions of minimum age and other children’s employment legislations are blatantly ignored.

Hiring of women domestic workers in Pakistan also represents the reinforcement and replication of gender inequalities. For instance, women domestic workers are discriminated in terms of wages and working conditions. While male servants, whether cooks, cleaners, or guards, would not do any extra work, a woman though hired for one particular job would be asked to undertake additional chores.

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To improve the situation of domestic workers in Pakistan and to empower them there is a need to adopt both legal and non legal strategies. Firstly, a countrywide survey should be undertaken by the government to document all categories of domestic workers. Any strategy for improving the situation of women domestic workers is dependent on this information. Secondly, domestic work should be recognized as a separate sector in service industry and as a form of productive labor. Thirdly, domestic worker should be included in the definition of a ‘worker’ in all labor laws. This would secure a stronger position for them and ensure protection through various legislative provisions including regulating working hours, minimum wages overtime pay, social benefits, provisions for annual and sick leave. Finally, requiring a written contract for domestic workers will be a huge step in bringing domestic work within the realm of the regulated service sector in Pakistan.

Networking has the potential for advancing the interests of women domestic workers. Women domestic workers need support to organize themselves from grassroots and community-based organisations. These organisations could take the initiative and streamline efforts of women domestic workers in the right direction. There is hope that with workers’ voices organised, legal policy responses will follow that will change the terms on which women domestic workers are employed, and improve their living and work conditions.

Under Article 17 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, “every citizen has the right to form associations or unions, subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality”. Thus, while domestic workers are free to form associations/unions, there are no exclusive unions or association of domestic workers in Pakistan. Since there are women’s organisations and unions in other employment sectors, setting up organisations for women in domestic service would not be something exceptional. Working together as a pressure group with these organizations could therefore be an effective strategy for women in domestic service.2 These organisations could support domestic workers and workers in other informal sector to take a collective action to solve their problems.

Raising awareness among women in domestic service could be another non-legal strategy which could help in implementation of any legislative provisions. There is a need to hold regular awareness-raising sessions, aimed at imparting information to these workers about their inherent and basic rights. This could be achieved through training programs, holding community meetings and discussion and support groups. Since a domestic worker works within the closed environment of a private home where interaction with other co-workers is limited, such venues can go a long way towards connecting workers with one another and leading them to collective action.

Other sectors of the society need to do their bit in helping domestic workers in their struggle. The media can bring to light the issue of domestic workers. Newspaper articles, radio and television talk shows, and street theatre can be useful tools. Women domestic workers organisations could regularly invite journalists to their seminars and group discussions so that the issue is continuously reported in the press. Furthermore, it is important to initiate a consultative process involving activists, government officials, legislators, non-governmental organisations, labor trade unions, researchers, domestic workers and employers. This consultative process would be beneficial as most of them are already in the process of negotiating with the government on the new labor policy and are also involved in the process of codification of labor laws in the country.3

Most importantly, the state also has a role in improving the living conditions of domestic worker by providing primary education, health care, housing, water and sanitation. A unique institutionalized approach for welfare system has been laid down through the Zakat system in Pakistan. Pakistan is among one of the few Muslim states that operates an official Zakat system.4 Zakat is collected through banks and the Government of Pakistan has established a Central Zakat Council to oversee the collection and disbursement of Zakat at federal, provincial, district and local levels. The Zakat funds thus collected from the public could easily be utilised for the welfare of domestic workers. Labor welfare facilities such as unemployment allowance, financial assistance to disabled or disadvantaged workers, educational and health provisions for workers and their children can be financed from the Zakat funds. Proper use of these resources can further help in improving the situation of domestic workers in Pakistan.

Dr. Ayesha Shahid is a Lecturer in Law at Brunel University. She has held lectureships at University of Hull, University of Peshawar and University of Warwick. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of Islamic Law, Public Law, Family Law, Gender and the Law and International Human Rights Law. Her monograph titled Silent Voices, Untold Stories Women Domestic Workers and their Struggle for Empowerment has been published by the Oxford University Press. 


  1. Studies carried out in South Africa, India, Bangladesh, United States of America, United Kingdom, Thailand, Gulf countries suggest, that in developed and developing countries it is mostly women who arc engaged as domestic workers. They work for extremely low wages and in unsafe, exploitative work conditions. []
  2. The Pakistan Institute of Labor, Education and Research (hereinafter referred as PILER) is a pioneer organization that has played a key role in raising a voice for workers in Pakistan. This organisation has also taken the initiative of forming community-based labor organisations and women’s groups in some sectors of the informal economy. These include “All Karachi Labor and Hosiery Garments Labor Association”, “Working Women Forum” and “Fisher Folk Forum”. []
  3. Government of Pakistan. “Labor Protection Policy 2005 (First Draft)” Ministry of Labor, Manpower and Overseas Pakistanis. Available at http://www.pakistan.gov.pk/divisions/labor-division/media/LP PolicyDraft020205.pdf accessed on 20th March, 2006. The six main categories for codification of  labor laws are Industrial Relations, Employment Conditions, Wages, Human Resource Development, Occupational Safety and Health and Labor Welfare and Social Protection. []
  4. The government of Pakistan’Zakat and Ushr Ordinance (1980) mandates that 2.5 percent of the value of all declared, fixed assets for those possessing Nisaab(assets) are to be automatically deducted at source by the state as Zakat at the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. []

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One Response to A Maid’s Work

  1. Behzad on Sep 2016 at 10:32 AM

    I respectfully beg to differ from you in that your analysis is totally biase without considering over-all socio-economical values. Government of Pakistan has already set a minimum monthly salary of PKR 13000/- whereas average salary in Pakistan is little less than PKR 11000/- month. Age limits for Adolescent and Adult Teens have also been defined in constitution. A good goverment officer earning PKR 65000/- month having to pay PKR 13000/- month to domestic labour is like giving at least 25% of his monthly income to domestic labor, which indeed is not affordable. These domestic labours are though charging even higher than this PKR 13000/ month, like PKR 18000 – 35000 by that 1% upper class population for their lavish life style whereas a middle class person even in case of extreme emergency shall not be able to afford such services.
    On the other hand, the biased picture that you sketch about the poverty, helplessness and exploitation of domestic worker, while i regret on such events, i would also like to add that the reports of mistreatment and exploitation of women is much critical in villages of Pakistan than it is reported with Domestic workers coming from same villages, not all fingers are same. Even a small dot on a clean cloth is much more visible and highlighted more than a dot on a dirty cloth and you are highlighting a dot in a civilized society, as i know people in Islamabad are much educated, simple , honest and fair in dealing. On the other hand, domestic workers in most cases turn out to be more cunning, liars, thief, dishonest, irresponsible, unreliable, disrespecting and sometimes shameless all because of lack of education / awareness, or due to environment of their uplifting.
    I hereby suggest you to move the nib of your pen after having adequate understanding to ground realities behind the scene.

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