The plight of children in domestic work
2016-03-01 16:00:47 -
Human Rights

Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker


In recognition of International Women’s Day on 8 March, and of all female domestic workers out there – among them even children – who do this valuable work, often with little or no appreciation, I dedicate this column to them.

Inspired by an article I read recently about a Pakistani activist who set up Aware Girls, a rights organisation for young girls in domestic work, I realised that although I have publicly spoken extensively and written about domestic workers and their issues, I have not written about the children in this industry. That’s mostly because here in Ireland and other countries with relatively more advanced human rights and child labour laws, the situation is not so common – although not entirely unheard of, as one of my closest friends, today a strong and admirable advocate for workers’ rights, came to Ireland at the age of 16 as a domestic worker.

The article I read concerned a doctor on trial in Pakistan, accused of “beating, burning and chopping off the hair” of a 13-year old girl servant. Reading the statements from Aware Girls in that article about the everyday experiences of children working in people’s homes was an eye-opener. I thought hard to put myself in the shoes of an 18-year-old, then a 15-year-old, but when I tried to think back about what it must be like for a girl of 12, or 10, I could not imagine what they go through.

Even if I take out exploitation and abuse and leave only the responsibility to look after someone else’s home and children, who are sometimes even their own age, I could not understand it. It is too painful and cruel to imagine; it’s incredible, too, to think that people who are supposed to be ‘educated’ are responsible.

If it’s difficult for women my age or older to fight our way out of the traps all too prevalent in domestic work – the coercion, the false promises, the exploitation –  I had to ask myself, how could a child be expected to live through this?

Here’s an even more basic question. How would it feel for any parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent or sibling to know that someone as young as their own beloved child, niece or nephew, grandchild little brother or sister endures what amounts to modern-day slavery?

Do we have to have direct experience, or know someone who knows someone, to spare a moment to think about the damage that child labour causes? If we are so far removed from experiences of others, should we stop caring? How can we care in a more meaningful way than ‘Ah isn’t that awful, poor child’? 

I don’t have all the answers, or any answers at all for that matter, but I know for sure that if others can do something, however small, to uproot or prevent the exploitation of other humans, so can we.


Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

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