On May 31st 2020, 8 year old domestic worker Zohra Shah was murdered at the hands of her employers for accidentally setting free expensive parrots from their cage. Zohra was taken to Beghum Akhtar Ruksana Hospital in Rawalpindi, where she succumbed to severe injuries. She had been sent as a child to work for abusive employers at the behest of her father, an unemployed drug addict. An examination of her body proved that she had been undergoing long-term abuse, with older bruises and marks in several places.
Zohra is just one of the most recent reported cases in Pakistan’s history of violence against underaged domestic workers. A 2004 ILO study estimated 264,000 child domestic workers in Pakistan, a number that is sure to have grown by now. The Punjab Domestic Workers’ Act 2019 prohibits child domestic labour for children under the age of 15 in the Province of Punjab. Despite this legislation child labour remains mainstream and normalized in the Province. Needless to say, absent such legislation in other Provinces, the situation is no better in the rest of the country. The state offers no protection to these vulnerable workers, despite signalling otherwise on the international stage. While a recent amendment to the Federal Employment of Children Act, 1991 now includes domestic work in the list of hazardous employment, how far this will be implemented remains to be seen.
Pakistan is signatory to international commitments that define a child as being under 18: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has the most signatories of any UN convention, and states that the international legal definition of a child should be a person below the age of 18. Furthermore, Article 32 of CRC states that a child cannot be employed in any occupation that is hazardous or interferes with the child’s education, or is harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
In similar vein, the ILO Minimum Age Convention states that “the minimum age for admission to any type of employment or work which by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out is likely to jeopardize the health, safety or morals of young persons shall not be less than 18 years.” Pakistan is a ratifying state to this convention and yet types of employment or work which would be likely to jeopardize the health and safety of young persons, such as mining or factory work, continue to employ children below the age of 18 as this is prescribed by law.
Pakistan’s federal and provincial laws define a child as being under 14 or 15 years of age with regards to various kinds of employment. The Employment of Children Act 1991 sets the legal definition of a child as under 14 years of age, and outlines a list of occupations not permitted for children below this age. It also only prohibits the outlined hazardous occupations (including factories and mines) for those 14 and younger. Children aged between 14 and 18 are not afforded these protections as the legal definition of a child as per the legislation does not extend to them.
Evidence points towards a correlation between household poverty and the prevalence of child labour. Majority of Pakistan lives in poverty and domestic labour provides meals and a roof to children who may not otherwise receive it. Even in households where child workers are treated well, they are still hired at the expense of an education. This is illustrative of the State’s negligence in providing free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 5 and 16, as it is required to do by Article 25A of the Constitution. The reality is that even if these child workers were not hired, their alternatives outside of employment aren’t any better. Opportunities for quality education and/or vocational training for Pakistan’s children are meagre. Educational quality and access remain poor, with children and families not being provided with adequate opportunities to improve their socio-economic circumstances. Putting children to work instead seems a more fruitful option, continuing a cycle of generational poverty.
The recently formed National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) under the Ministry of Human Rights, in response to an RTI from PILAP, informs us that it is establishing the necessary introductions at the provincial level to ensure a periodical review of, and recommendations for, policy making with regards to children’s rights and protection
it has recommended changes in the relevant laws relating to the legal definition of a child. Functional at a very nascent stage, without support staff or an office premises, the NCRC has not yet made any inroads towards establishing the legal definition of a child as 18 years, or expanding the list of hazardous occupations in the Employment Act of 1991 to include other potentially hazardous occupations.
PILAP will continue to engage with the NCRC in this regard as it proceeds to establish itself.