Does Anybody Care?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
8. Do you try to provide opportunities for the child domestic
worker in your house to go to school?