Need for regulating recruiting culture of domestic workers
Domestic workers (DWs) are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in our society, largely made up of women and children. Although they suffer harassment, physical torture and verbal abuse, they play an important role by contributing to the country's household income and labour.
There is, however, no law to protect DWs, except the Domestic Servants' Registration Ordinance of 1961, promulgated to compel domestic workers in five metropolitan areas of Dhaka to register with the police. In 2010, the National Child Labour Elimination Policy, while classifying child labour, included 'domestic works' as part of the informal sector. Later, in light of human rights activism, domestic work was recognised as a profession in the Labour Act 2013. However, it also placed domestic work into the informal sector. Thus, DWs are not entitled to have the benefits of formal sector workers. In 2015, the government formulated the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy, which is not legally binding; hence, no provision has yet been implemented to protect DWs' rights.
Several groups – including NGOs and INGOs, government officials, DWs representatives, the Bangladesh Labour Foundation, the Domestic Worker Association, and others – have advocated for a long time to enact a comprehensive law to protect the rights of DWs. Their key emphasis is on recognising domestic work as a profession, protecting DWs' labour and social rights (ensuring minimum salary, welfare, education, training, safety, and security), establishing a monitoring cell and so forth. The following analysis addresses yet another justification for enacting a law: to regulate the recently developed recruiting agencies.
Most DWs in Bangladesh get employment via referrals from other DWs, family members, or the family they serve. However, there has been a dearth of DWs over the last several years, primarily for two reasons. Firstly, economically disadvantaged children now have access to education due to policies and actions the government has adopted. Secondly, the garment industry attracts more female workers for better wages with weekly holidays. Thus, some recruiting agencies (mostly Dhaka-based) have emerged, intending to provide DWs quickly.
Although Bangladesh is yet to ratify the Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers of 2011, adopted by the International Labour Organisation, its provision is relevant to the current analysis. Article 15 prescribes that member states must determine the conditions governing the operation of private employment agencies recruiting DWs following national laws, regulations and practices to safeguard DWs from abusive activities. The 2015 Policy, as mentioned above, lacks recruiting agency provisions. It recommends that if a verbal contract, understanding, or agreement exists, it is preferable to conclude the discussion in the presence of a third party acceptable to both the DW and the employer. Therefore, these growing agencies' legal status, responsibility and obligations are left undefined.
In the absence of any specific law, if these agencies are functioning based on practice prevalent in the country, there is, unfortunately, no authority to monitor whether they are operating in conformity with the current practice. Moreover, 'practice' varies from city to city, area to area. Even across the whole country, there is no fixed wage for any specific work. Salary varies by working hour, nature of work and place. In the 2015 Policy, the policymakers did not declare the minimum wage for the DWs. Even if one assumes that the recruiting agencies fix the wage based on practice, a question comes whether the recruiting agencies are predominantly targeting upper-class families and unreasonably increasing the remuneration of DWs and making it a new practice. Moreover, the ILO Convention prohibits deducting the fees charged by private employment agencies from the salary of DWs. Although some recruiting agencies claim to take separate fees as their service charge, there is no standard fee that all agencies charge. And the overall result is a scenario where employment practices are dissimilar and inconsistent.
In the global community, the term 'maid' has gained pejorative connotations. Unfortunately, the majority of these recruiting companies refer to DWs as "maids", and some of them use the terms "maid" and "domestic worker" interchangeably. Using such a derogatory term directly influences how DWs are seen and abused. Hiring a DW is being compared to renting a car using E-app by some of these agencies. Hence, these agencies fail to treat DWs with the respect and dignity they deserve and instead, they are promoting a contemporary form of slavery.
Additional reasonings as to why recruiting agencies should be governed by legal regulation include: providing a list of safety and security measures they must take, describing adequate procedures for investigating complaints, specifying respective obligations of and fraudulent practices concerning recruiting agencies' activities, determining the agency's role in sexual or verbal harassment allegations against the employer and alleged theft accusations by the employer.
Despite these factors, it is hard to disregard altogether the initiative to digitise this platform. However, the absence of legislation and proper authority to regulate the operations would undermine noble intentions and lead to arbitrariness.
The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.