<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 153 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 7, 2004

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Does Anybody Care?

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Talking about the rights of domestic workers is as good as talking to a solid brick wall. In a country where a seemingly organised group as the garments workers still have to demand a holiday on May Day, the voices of this invisible group remain silent. Domestic workers are the most deprived and exploited individuals in our society which continues to nurture the feudal master- slave relationship that automatically negates the concept of basic human rights of the poor and powerless.

A large part of this deplorable apathy is that, even the most progressive section of society, while protesting with appropriate outrage the gross violations of human rights outside their homes, can look away when they happen inside their homes. Many of the violent crimes against domestic workers that have been reported in the newspapers have been committed by apparently educated, 'respectable' citizens. But even if we keep the horrendous instances of sexual abuse, prolonged torture that have ended in severe mutilation or even death aside, just taking a closer look at the more 'moderate' employers of domestic workers reveals a rather unsavoury truth.

In most households where domestic workers are employed there are no rules regarding, say, what they will be paid or how many days of holidays they are entitled to. A chuta bua (in itself a derogatory term meaning part time maid) may get from TK300 to TK500 a month but her work is undefined and can go beyond the hours originally decided upon. She is responsible for sweeping, mopping rooms, washing huge amounts of clothes, and grinding spices-- tasks, which involve hard, back-breaking labour. Sometimes if she is sick and cannot come she will be penalised in the form of a cut from her measly salary. In any case how can any sane person expect that a salary of TK300 is enough to survive on in this century?

For the domestic worker who stays day and night, he or she is expected to be available for 24 hours in exchange for the favour of being given a place to stay and threes meals a day. Teenaged and child domestic maids are the worse off. Literally caged inside the house, these girls are not allowed any holidays, cannot go out and are at the beck and call of their employers at all times. Usually they do not even have their own rooms and spend all their time doing chores, stealing a few glances at the television and are finally allowed to retire after the whole household is asleep only to get up in the early hours of the morning. Often the bleak, uneventful lives make these girls desperate leading them to act rashly. They may enter into romantic relationships that often end up in heartache. Usually the girl is made to feel like a pariah who has tainted the honour of the household. The worst kind of abuses will be hurled at her before she is turned out of the house.

Here we come to another area of violation which is the total disrespect for another human being. Domestic workers are treated as non-entities, machines that are meant to serve in exchange of money and food. Children are not admonished when they hit the maid or rudely talk to an elderly worker. Employers think nothing of using expletives at the slightest mistake of the domestic worker. But what gives the employer the right to demean another human being just because he/she is in a weaker position is the absence of any kind of protection for the domestic worker.

Despite such a large number of individuals in domestic service-- more than 5 million-- there is very little information on this informal work force. Without any kind of registering process domestic workers are virtually nameless and faceless. Yet they contribute significantly to enhancing the lifestyles of the better off. They do jobs that no one else wants to do. They take off the bulk of the load of housework. They allow their employers to relax, enjoy holidays, entertain friends and share care-giving of their children. But what do they get in return? Apart from their meagre salaries, they are denied the right to have holidays, sometimes to decent food and accommodation, but mostly to the dignity and appreciation they deserve.

So where are the human rights organisations, the NGOs that should be working to protect their rights? Surprisingly, while there are many organisations that claim to uphold the rights of garment workers, the number of institutions exclusively working for domestic worker rights are few and far between. The only names that one can think of offhand are Surovi, Shoishob, Bangladesh and Domestic Workers' Association. Surovi is one of the pioneer organisations to provide schooling for child domestic workers. Shoishob has for years set up makeshift schools for child domestic workers by convincing employers to allow their employees to attend school and initiated campaigns to sensitise employers about the rights of domestic workers. The Domestic Workers' Association, run by the National Garment Workers' Federation states its objective as to fight 'the exploitation of Bangladeshi domestic workers by helping them to achieve adequate wages and appropriate treatment'. On August 18, 1999, the DWA organised a protest demonstration of domestic workers against 'torture, killing, rape, kidnapping, burning, forceful prostitution, termination and shelterlessness of domestic workers’. Several hundred domestic workers from Fakirapul to Tongi, participated in the protest rally with black flags. There are also instances of private initiatives such as informal schools set up by various ladies' clubs that have given child domestic workers a chance to dream of better futures.

While these are commendable efforts, more so because of the unpopularity of the cause, they are not enough in terms of bringing about a qualitative change in the lives of domestic workers.

There is a huge need for more such organisations that need the resources, government support and determination to reach every single household that employs domestic workers. Domestic workers must have the opportunity to organise themselves, get professional training, interact with each other and voice the injustices they face. Unless they are given the power to assert their rights and demand what is legitimately owed them, the story of their exploitation will go on. But more crucially, the onus lies on the employers to change their attitude towards them without which mere institutional support will achieve precious little. This basically translates to employers recognising the value of the service provided by domestic workers and giving them the remuneration, facilities and respect that they deserve. It means treating them like human beings. Otherwise we are back to screaming into a solid brick wall.

Are You a Good Employer-- Points to Ponder?

1. Do you pay the domestic worker fairly in accordance to the number of hours and volume of work?
2. Do you allow the domestic worker to take a day off in the week?
3. Do you give the domestic worker time off during the whole day to rest or attend to personal matters?
4. Do you address the domestic worker with respect? Do you praise him/her for a job well done?
5. Do you discourage your children or other members of the family from abusing the domestic worker?
6. Do you physically/verbally abuse the domestic worker?
7. Do you look after the domestic worker when he/she is sick by say, paying for her medical bills or taking him/her to the doctor?
8. Do you try to provide opportunities for the child domestic worker in your house to go to school?




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