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     Volume 9 Issue 21| May 21, 2010|

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Cover Story

Recognising the Invisible

Elita Karim
Photos: zahedul i khan

Nurunnessa is called Boro Bua by the tenants of a particular building in Mirpur. She washes the staircases and the floors early every morning and hardly ever gets to meet anyone in the building. However, she is quite popular in the area because she provides domestic workers to families living there, for which she receives 200-500 takas as a token of gratitude from the families. Very often, Boro Bua is treated to tea and biscuits in the evenings, when she goes to visit the domestic workers. A local guardian of all the girls working for the families, Boro Bua takes pride in her position amongst her peers.

Once the law is passed, domestic workers will be required to give in their personal information to be recorded and kept with a legal body in the colony/area where the worker is based.

Boro Bua lives in a nearby basti (slum area) where she is known by all the dwellers. Many who live in the slum had migrated to Dhaka looking for jobs and a better life. Boro Bua helps these dwellers out by taking their daughters under her wing and looking for good homes where they can work, either as part timers or full time domestic workers.

When Nurunnessa hears about a law to be passed soon by the government, which would protect the domestic workers and ensure them their rights, she is quite nonchalant and does not seem to spare much thought to the idea. “As long as the girls get to work and earn an honest living, the government can do whatever it wants to,” she says, sitting down on the floor, slowly folding a betel leaf, before popping it into her mouth. The law would also make sure that the domestic workers are well fed, given a day off in a week and are given at least two weeks of annual recreation leave amongst others. In a nutshell, the domestic workers will be taken care of and recognised as a working section in society contributing to the country's economy. The law also acknowledges the fact that domestic workers are a vital part of society, helping people to manage their households and taking care of their children. This invisible workforce allows others to have a better quality of life.

The summing up of the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy - 2010, soon to become a law, seems to put Nurunnnessa in deep thought. Of course, she is happy that now domestic workers would no longer need to live with the fear of being tortured or exploited by their employers. The employers would now be compelled to give the workers a few free hours a day, not to mention a day off in a week, free time to watch TV, meet family or friends, go out or just sleep. “But would I still be supplying domestic workers to the families?” asks a concerned Boro Bua. Clearly, she is worried about losing her side job and wonders if the rich families would stop calling on her, once the law is passed. Obviously, it would require her and many others to come to terms with the change, which is, after all, quite revolutionary.

If one has to take in young children, they are not to be given any kind of work which might be dangerous or which they
cannot manage, they are to be given more free hours than usual and they are also to be provided with proper education.

A rough sketch of the policy to protect the rights of domestic workers was proposed a little over a year ago, by many organisations, including BILS, the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Industries, who gave in a more complete version of the proposal. Finally, the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy - 2010, is soon to be made into a proper law. The law speaks on several aspects concerning both the domestic workers as well as the employers. For instance, once the law is passed, domestic workers will be required to give in their personal information to be recorded and kept with a legal body in the colony/area where the worker is based. The government has also proposed a monitoring body, which would regularly check on these domestic workers.

The government is finally taking a positive step for the domestic workers, a step that should have been taken years ago, especially in a country where the culture of families depending on domestic workers for all kinds of work is an idea taken for granted. The policy, which is soon to become a law however, is not without loopholes.

Phulki is a school for domestic workers, where they are taught to read, write and do household work.

The policy for instance, discourages employing children under 14. In the case where a minor is employed (under special circumstances) she would have to be at least 12 and would have special facilities while living in the employer's home, for instance fewer working hours, the opportunity to go to be educated etc. However, most of the time, it is seen that children under 12 are often brought by their poverty-stricken parents to work in homes. If these children will not be allowed to work by the law, what are the alternative plans that the government is taking to fulfill their financial needs? The law also says that a domestic worker should get at least eight hours of sleep and will work for not more than eight hours, pertaining to the labour law of Bangladesh.

However, the labour law is more suitable for industry and factory workers who work continuously for eight to sometimes 12 hours a day with overtime. Many workers are also paid by piece if not quantity. How would a domestic worker come under this law where he or she gets plenty of intervals in between? Thirdly, how efficient will the monitor cell be which the government is proposing? Will the government be able to monitor the domestic workers working in each home? Finally, compensation for the domestic worker is made sure of by the law. But how will the employer be compensated if a domestic worker leaves without any notice?

It is necessary to recognise these workers as a contributing factor to the economy and also to abolish the culture of mistreating domestic workers in the country.

Advocate Sultana Kamal, Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra, says that one will have to come to terms with reality and work accordingly. “Poverty forces parents to give up their young children and make them work in homes,” she says. “All they want is for their children to have proper meals a day and a safe place to sleep at night, besides earning a small living. And if these children are not taken in as domestic workers, they might end up in dire conditions. This is why, the policy says that if one has to take in young children, they are not to be given any kind of work which might be dangerous or which they cannot manage, they are to be given more free hours than usual and they are also to be provided with proper education.” Kamal agrees that there might be several loopholes in the policy and several more might come out once the law is passed. “However, this law needs to be passed and be out in front of the people,” Kamal stresses. She says that the law will hopefully be passed in the next few months. She adds that it is necessary to recognise these workers as a contributing factor to the economy and also to abolish the culture of mistreating domestic workers in the country. “Once the law is passed, it can be worked on accordingly, where these loopholes and dilemmas can be solved.”

According to 25-year-old Lily, she appreciates the steps taken by the government which will give her and others like her a chance to explore other dimensions in life. A domestic worker based in Mohakhali, Lily is a very good artist and often does pencil sketches on paper whenever she has some free time. The law, once passed, will let Lily to enjoy at least a few hours every day and one whole day a week, to sketch as much she would want to.

Forty-two-year-old Chanda Dipti works as a receptionist in a small NGO based in the capital. Her husband is a teacher in a public college in Gazipur. They recently shifted to a small flat in Siddeshwari, Dhaka. Mother of a 13-year-old girl, Dipti has been working for the last 17 years and says that her family is dependent on domestic workers to cook and clean the house. “My husband stays at work the whole day and so do I. Our parents live outside Dhaka, which is why we cannot expect them to help us out at home,” explains Dipti. Like many other middle class families living in the city, Dipti says that she has always depended on domestic workers to practically run her household. She relates the story of Smrity, the 19-year-old domestic worker currently working in Dipti's house. “Smrity was very young when she was brought into my home,” says Dipti. “She was bruised and her clothes were all torn. I am ashamed to say this but, she was tortured and abused by a very close relative of mine where she used to work initially. Back then Smrity was only 11 years old and we lived very close to the relative's house.” Dipti says that for four years Smrity was beaten and abused for failing to throw the garbage on time, for not being able to cook properly or just for daydreaming. In all the four years that she was there, Smrity's employers had given her only four sets of clothing. It was when Smrity's employer took her by her hair and hit her against the wall for not responding to her employer's call on time, that other family members finally took a step and brought Smrity to Dipti's house. Since then, Smrity has been a family member and not just a domestic worker. “I take care of Smrity as well as I can, because Smrity takes care of us,” says Dipti. “It is a very simple equation for me. She has been taking care of my daughter from a very young age. She is the one who knows what is to be cooked at home and when the shopping is to be done. Being an orphan, she has nobody who would actually come and visit her. But she has a maternal uncle living in the village. I call him every now and then and ask him to come and visit Smrity at least once a month.” Dipti supports the policy soon to be made into a law. However, she says that she is not too confident about giving the domestic workers a day off in a week where they will be allowed to go out. “You see, most of the domestic workers who work in different homes are young girls in their teens,” explains Dipti. “It is not safe to just let them go out, especially when their parents and guardians live far away. If their guardians and parents are aware of their daughters going out every week, then it would not be a problem. For instance, I always take Smrity out with me, to family parties and also to Chinese restaurants. However, I would not allow her to go out on her own and stay out the whole day, especially since her guardians do not live in Dhaka. Her guardians might blame me if something happens to Smrity. After all, I am supposed to take care of her and ensure that she stays safe.”

Domestic workers put on a play at the Citizen Rights Fair, reflecting on their plight.

The proposed law may not be foolproof but the loopholes can easily be fixed and the wrinkles smoothened out. The intention behind the law is to ensure the basic rights of domestic workers as well as recognise that they are part of the workforce, significantly enhancing society's well being. One of the biggest evils in our society is a widespread apathy and disrespect for domestic workers, many of whom are treated like slaves. The anomaly of domestic workers being paid according to their employers whims and treated with neglect and sometimes violence, is in complete contradiction to our claim of being a civilised society and democratic nation. The law, which is supposed to become a reality soon, can help to remove this terrible stigma.

opyright (R) thedailystar.net 2010