Laws to Protect Home Workers
A Matter of Conscience
Slavery may have been abolished a long time ago, at least officially speaking, but for many developing economies, a modern form of slavery has persisted and been sustained. Taking advantage of the dire situation of poor people, the privileged sections of society have created an environment where men, women and children are made to do endless hours of household work for a pittance and are denied even the most basic rights of an employee such as weekly holidays, bonuses or medical care. In Bangladesh, most domestic workers are treated with the maximum level of contempt and negligence. A feudal society that thrives on an unofficial caste system coupled with complete apathy from the various governments has ensured that many domestic workers continue to suffer untold torture and humiliation, in silence. A roundtable for a proposed law to protect their rights promises to change the way home workers and their labour will be seen in the future.
Aasha Mehreen Amin
Fifteen-year-old Fancy Begum. Her employer beat her with sticks, scalded her and would often tear clumps of hair from her head.
It is hard to find a day when some newspaper or the other does not have a story of inhuman torture, sometimes leading to death, of a domestic worker. More often than not it is of a minor, as young as seven or eight years old. The attacker is usually the mistress of the household, sometimes it is a couple or the whole family together who take part in the sadistic orgy of inflicting unbearable levels of pain on the malnourished, weak body of a child or young person. Almost always the attackers are respectable members of the society, they could be doctors, lawyers, engineers or high-level government officials, they could even be diplomats living abroad. Scalding with heated instruments, banging the head of the victim against the wall, punching, kicking, beating the victim with metal instruments, these are just some examples of the inhuman treatment inflicted by 'human beings'. Sometimes these grisly stories make the headlines of newspapers or even get publicity on TV channels. But all too soon, the stories are forgotten and new victims make the news with fresher wounds. A few lucky ones manage to escape and survive to tell their stories, others succumb to their fatal injuries, are dumped in a dustbin or by the wayside; some escape by hanging themselves or jumping off the building of their prison. The torturers and murderers belong to the more privileged classes, they can therefore bribe their way out of prison or pay off the victim's poor family to ensure their silence.
The most frightening reality is that only a handful of cases of torture or murder get reported in the media. Meanwhile thousands of domestic workers are being physically tortured, humiliated and deprived of the most basic human rights. The younger the worker, the easier it is to manipulate and the more likely that he or she will be physically assaulted.
Nupur, a child home worker was beaten mercilessly by her employers.
The roundtable to chalk out ways to include domestic workers into the purview of a labour law indicated a growing consciousness among civil society about this neglected section of the labour force and the realisation that something must be done to bring them out of their semi-bondage state. The first thing one would notice about this crucial roundtable at CIRDAP auditorium was that domestic workers have been termed as home workers, no doubt giving the job a certain amount of respectability. Secondly it was organised by Grihasramik Odhikar Protishtha Network which is a network for the establishment of home workers rights. Thirdly, present at the roundtable were very high profile human rights activists as well as representatives of a large number of organisations, all working in some way or the other to help to make the lives of home workers a little better. The seminar was chaired by Dr. Hamida Hussain, Convener, Sramik Nirapotta Forum (Workers Safety Forum); the introductory speech was given by Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, Coordinator, Grihasramik Odhikar Protishta and Shireen Akhter, Chairperson Kormojibi Nari was the moderator. The fact that all these people had gathered together for the purpose of proposing a draft law governing this kind of labour, pointed out to a harsh reality: that without stringent laws society will continue to deprive home workers of their basic rights and will allow crimes like torture or murder of home workers, to go unpunished.
At the roundtable Abul Hossain, Advisor to the Women Domestic Workers' Union gave a detailed overview of the grim situation of women home workers in our country. Hossain's research points out that domestic work has not been recognised as proper work since the time society became patriarchal as it was work that usually the women of the household did. In matrilineal societies, he says, the contribution of domestic work was recognised.
The present, as Hossain's study points out, is hardly any better. Fifty percent of women home workers are paid between 301 to 600 taka a month. Around 13.33 percent are paid from 100 to 300 a month and another 13.33 percent get between 601 and 900 a month. Only 3.33 percent get between 901 to 1200, another 3.33 percent between 1201 to 1500 taka and yet another 3.33 percent between 1501 to 1800 taka. On an average around 47 percent of home workers work from 11 to 12 hours a day while as much as 16.69 percent work from 15 to 16 hours a day. Work includes washing clothes, cleaning the house, taking care of children, cooking, taking the children to and from school etc. The wages given for such hard work are very low and are in no way enough to sustain a family of four or five members of a family. Some workers work in messes or hotels.
Most women home workers come from Comilla, Mymensingh, Rangpur, Faridhpur and Barisal and are on average about 32 years old. They are mostly illiterate, have less than three children, marry more than once; few have happy married lives.
The research further points out that home workers are often physically and mentally tortured, they live in grand homes but their place of sleep is not very secure ( in the sitting room kitchen, verandah or bedroom floor; only 6.69 percent had their own rooms), they serve nutritious, fancy food but their own meals are not very nutritious, they live among a family but are never considered part of the family.
One of the most astounding facts revealed in Abul Hossain's presentation is that the Bangladesh Labour Law 2006 passed in Parliament last October, does not include home workers, in fact the draft law has deliberately left them out. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) moreover, has adopted 187 conventions but not a single one of them have been for home workers. The ILO however, is preparing the draft of a convention to protect the rights of homeworkers and in Bangladesh various labour organisations and human rights groups are working to develop a network to work towards this goal.
Shireen Akhter, moderator of the roundtable, pointed out that the fact that despite so many laws being applicable to workers, home workers have been left out, indicates a harsh reality that society does not recognise the valuable contribution they make in peoples' lives. A united social movement is therefore necessary she added.
The designated discussants and other participants brought up many of the stark realities faced by home workers. Mohiuddin Ahmed a former Secretary of Home and now a columnist, gave an impassioned account of child home workers being tortured by employers terming this form of work as virtual slavery and calling for a complete ban on this form of labour. Many participants echoed his sentiments and agreed that since this constitutes hazardous labour, child domestic work should be banned and a minimum age of 16 years be set for home workers. Ahmed also pointed out that perpetrators of the crime seldom get punished and often even the media protects them by not disclosing their names.
Rina Roy, representing Manusher Jonno gave an example of a home worker whose employer had decided to cut down on the food given to her because the price of rice had risen. Roy urged all those present to look into their own homes and own behaviour and try to treat home workers with respect.
The roundtable ended with a list of proposals. These included:
A special law to protect the rights of home workers (that would include minimum wage, terms and conditions); banning child domestic work; a vow to ensure the rights of home workers in the homes of those present; bonuses to home workers on religious holidays such as Eid and Puja; a promise to help victims of violence by the network; strengthening local government and establishing watchdog groups to monitor households that employ home workers; establishing a strong organisation for home workers.
Dr. Hamida Hussain, summing up the rather lively session that could have gone on for a few hours more, said that because the work performed by home workers is 'invisible' in that it is not acknowledged officially as labour, there is a lack of accountability which allows various forms of injustices to continue against home workers. Hussain also pointed out the confusion even among legal circles: last year the Law Commission had drafted a law that would include abuses against home workers as part of domestic violence but human rights and labour organisations objected to this because for the home workers, the place of employment (which happens to be a household) is their work place. The draft law should therefore be part of the labour law. Dr. Hussain also commented that issues like the labour surplus, poverty and widening gap between the rich and poor had to be taken into account and mentioned that the network could only be strengthened if home workers themselves are included.
Just having a few laws stipulating the terms and conditions of domestic work is not enough. The hierarchical, class-conscious mindset of employers must change. The greatest evil in our society is how the middle, lower-middle and upper classes view the poorer sections of society. Employers and their families believe that they are superior beings than the people who work in their household, who make their lives so comfortable and easy. Children are allowed to misbehave with their care-givers, a child worker is not allowed to go to school but is required to carry the employer's child's schoolbag when taking him or her to school. A child domestic worker is called 'pichchi' even though he or she may have a name, and will have to conform to a particular dress code that will identify him or her as a 'servant': for example, cropped hair, oversized frock, no shoes or plastic sandals. Domestic workers, whether children or adults, do not eat the same food as their employers, sometimes they are given leftovers, sometimes it is a separate menu with cheaper, low quality items. Weekly holidays are almost unheard of, bonuses are rare and often they are at the beck and call of the employer or the employer's family at all hours of the day.
It is easy to feel outraged at incidents of brutality against home workers that we read about in the papers or see on TV. But most of us feel that this is something that happens in other people's homes. Yet if we look again in our own homes, chances are that we will find examples of a home worker being treated unfairly or with disrespect. A law that will force employers to treat their home workers with a minimum level of respect may just be the remedy to bring back our invisible consciences.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007