On July 1, The Daily Star shared horrific pictures of the violence inflicted upon 14 year old Asma Khatun, a domestic worker employed in the capital's Uttara. A year ago, she had been employed for Tk 5,000 per month by Abu Taher and his wife, who promised to care for her "like their own daughter". No such thing happened of course, and she was made to work throughout the day, with barely any time for sleep. When the physical and emotional stress led to her making mistakes, she was verbally abused. After that, the beatings started, and it soon turned into torture—she was burned with cigarettes and hot oil, sometimes with dry chilli sprinkled onto her wounds. She was never given any access to healthcare, and they routinely stopped her from contacting her family.
Whenever we hear of a story like this, our first thought is—what sort of people torture and abuse a child, for whom, as employers, they have a duty of care? However, this is not the first time that we have been shocked by the cases of inhumane torture being inflicted on vulnerable young domestic workers. The question we must ask ourselves is not why, but how. How do we still have a sector of employment that is set up so that workers are at the mercy of their employers, dependant on their "kindness", with no way to claim their rights? And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, are domestic workers becoming even more vulnerable?
The informal nature of domestic work makes it extremely difficult to quantify the number of people actually employed in this sector in Bangladesh, leading to many rights organisations calling them the "invisible workforce". According to a 2006 study report of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Dhaka office, over two million domestic workers were estimated to be operating in Bangladesh in 2005, although this figure did not include workers operating in the Dhaka City Corporation areas, where a majority of them are located. Another research paper by Caribou Digital put the number of domestic workers at 10.5 million in 2019. An ILO survey (2019) conducted with 500 domestic workers showed that an overwhelming majority of domestic workers were women, and over one-fourth of them were children. This survey also confirmed what we already know about domestic work—low wages, long working hours, and the very real possibility of physical and mental abuse means that employment in this sector cannot be considered to be "decent work".
At an online seminar organised by domestic workers' rights organisation Suniti, speakers warned that during the pandemic, domestic workers are being pushed deeper into their already precarious situations. The pitfalls are different for workers who live with their employers and workers who rent rooms, usually in slums, and travel to work. For live-in workers, there is a greater possibility of being forced to work harder and for longer hours, with less time for rest. There is also a higher chance of being emotionally and physically abused, for the same reasons that incidents of domestic violence have surged across the world (so much so that the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in April asked "all governments to put women's safety first as they respond to the pandemic"). Live-in workers could also have their freedoms restricted and be forbidden from going outside or being near their families "for their own good". In all of these scenarios, the psychological trauma for child domestic workers (who almost always live with their employers) is likely to be far greater.
For workers who don't live with their employers, the greatest risk is the possibility of losing their livelihoods. While there is no clear data yet, there have already been multiple reports of these "part-time" domestic workers (although most of them work full-time hours) losing their jobs without notice. The fact that people have found it easier to let go of their domestic workers but not their chauffeurs or security guards, who are also "coming in from outside", is an example of the many gendered inequalities that are manifesting during the pandemic. According to data collected by Suniti from domestic workers from four areas in Dhaka, only 35 percent of respondents received any assistance, from public or private sectors, after losing their jobs, and whatever they received only lasted for a few days. Amidst this financial (and for many, food) crisis, 85 percent of respondents said they had been victims of domestic violence at home as a result of their loss of income.
The "general holiday" did not apply to part-time domestic workers who retained their jobs, and a majority of them were compelled to travel to work, putting themselves, their families and their employers at risk. The loss of autonomy in this top-down relationship is clear, even without concrete data—it is highly unlikely for a domestic worker to have enough savings to be able to survive the pandemic without monthly wages (more than one-third of domestic workers reported having debt burdens in the 2019 ILO survey), but it is even more unlikely for them to have the authority to ask their employers for wages and not come in to work. However, if the employers do get infected, domestic workers are usually the first to be suspected of spreading the infection.
In this scenario, what can we do to ensure that our domestic workers have greater agency and power to negotiate their rights? They say "charity begins at home" but it is this sense of "charity" that has been used by many to perpetuate a system of employment that is inherently oppressive. We have all heard the reasoning—"at least these children are protected from child marriage if they work in a house, at least these young girls are safer here instead of in a factory" and so on. However, cases like that of Asma Khatun make it clear that what these workers need is not charity, but proper legal and social protections and formal recognition of their labour as a crucial part of our economy.
With that in mind, the Bangladesh government adopted the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy in 2015. While the policy does recognise domestic work as a profession and gives guidelines regarding work conditions and benefits, it does not outline any minimum wage or working hours. The policy also allows for children as young as 12 to be employed, provided they are not engaged in heavy and dangerous work. Child labour is a complicated issue that cannot be rooted out in a day; nevertheless, as a country that is on its way to achieving middle income status, we need to do better—Bangladesh should no longer allow its children to be employed in a sector that is so notoriously difficult to monitor and where its workers are so prone to abuse.
While the policy is a step in the right direction, it is nowhere near enough to give domestic workers the protections they require. Since domestic workers are excluded from the Labour Act 2013, they do not have any legal rights and cannot be members of trade unions. Without this right to organise, these workers cannot demand their rights, and the vicious cycle continues. In the wake of the pandemic, there have been many debates regarding a new world order. Can we not break the cycle in this post-pandemic world? In the US, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has set up a coronavirus care fund that is providing emergency assistance to those who need it. We must do everything we can, not to help domestic workers with our "good intentions", but to facilitate the building of a similar alliance, so that the workers themselves can demand decent work and a life of dignity.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @ShuprovaTasneem.