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     Volume 7 Issue 21 | May 23, 2008 |

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The Invisibles

Nadia Reedah

Ten years old and working at a house. Nothing new about that in this country. Ten-year-olds don't have bargaining power. They don't know how to ask for more salary, better clothes, better living space, the right to go to school or quality food. Make him run errands, polish the shoes, sweep the floors and he does it without a complaint. And complaints can be dealt with easily too -- a slap on the face, a kan mola, or even just a piercing-enough stare to freeze the small heart inside his little body.

And that's exactly how 10-year-old Romel is treated. I first met him at my aunt's house last year -- a very enthusiastic little boy with curious eyes. My cousin, the same age as Romel, ordered him to clean her trainers before she went out to play badminton, get her badminton gear, put up the nets, turn on the lights, and wait outside the court until further orders.

A spoilt brat, this cousin of mine, that's the logical conclusion. But is she really? I remember when I was her age, growing up in a middle-class home in Mohammadpur, there was Kohinoor, Ramjani, Dilu and many others. We took it for granted that there would always be someone like that there. We took it for granted that they would not sit at the table with us and have lunch. They always got the leftover food and the quality and pattern of clothes were distinguishingly different from ours. When we went out to a relatives' house, they never accompanied us. They only went to visit their village homes once a year and school? Unheard of!

We are so used to growing up with people waiting on us hand and foot that these people, who dress and look differently from us, and are from a significantly less-privileged class than us, have been pushed into a corner and become the collective invisibles. Taken completely for granted, it would be more of a shocker if they were to be treated as equals. Although very few of us ever place ourselves in their shoes, it would instantly become obvious how important that is, in order to treat everyone with the respect every human being deserves.

One day when I was thanking my cousin's driver for dropping me off and my friend who was on the phone heard me and assumed that I was thanking a rickshawallah. “Khaise! Rickshawallah-reo thank you dao!” he exclaimed not knowing I was getting down from a car. And then I thought -- what an unheard of thing, why would I ever thank a rickshawallah? He is also part of the invisible collective, the class of people who are there doing the most physically debilitating work and making the least amount of money and getting told off with the most belittling abuse one can think of if he were to ask for five takas more on a sweltering day.

Disregard for fellow human beings who are not privileged enough to look or dress like us is an acceptable social standard. But sometimes there is more than disregard for people who work in our houses. Not only are they treated with nonchalance, they are expected to perform like robots, anything less than that is a received as contemptuous, as a threat to the socio-economic hierarchy of things. And the reply comes in the form of the worst form of a violation of basic human rights -- shouting, beating, burning with a hot iron, chopping off the hair and sometimes even throwing them off the top of buildings.

The stories of Madhabi, Moni Mala, Swapna, Arefina, Fatema and many others have been highlighted in the newspapers many times. But has it changed the living conditions of the rest of the Madhabis and Moni Malas?

Not a chance. Unless home working is recognised as a form of labour, change will be hard to come by. While there are hundreds of thousand of people working inside homes, none of them have a legal agreement with their employers on terms of employment, even the most progressive of employers don't have such an agreement. And without that they are at the complete mercy of their employers.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of underage workers working at homes all across the capital city as there is no official government data on it but on the basis of a survey conducted by SHOISHAB Bangladesh in 2000 of 10,000 middle-class households there were around 300,000 child home workers in Dhaka alone. Ensuring the rights of these children is beyond anyone's reach as there is no scope for official accountability. Although almost all forms of labour are under the jurisdiction of trade unions, no such unions exist for home workers. Most of these home workers are completely illiterate which make them easy targets for exploitation. Parents of these children (most of whom are girls) are usually the poorest of the poor who give up their children thinking that it is a safe place for them to work (as opposed to working in garment factories or shops) and also takes the burden off them for another mouth to feed. The children have to do back-breaking work from very early in the morning to very late at night with very little free time, and virtually no scope for education. They are abused, verbally and physically, by all members of the family. The males of the family sometimes take advantage of their vulnerability to exploit the girls sexually. And many simply become part of the statistics of never-to-be-convicted murderers.

According to a study conducted by labour rights group The Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) at least 17 per cent of home workers in the country are subjected to sexual abuse while 47 per cent of them are assaulted physically every year. 63 per cent of home workers were forced to work 'beyond their physical abilities'. Most have to work long hours between 12 and 18 hours a day - for little pay. 83 per cent of them were mercilessly scolded even for small mistakes, 40 per cent of them felt insecure while 68 per cent suffered from depression. From different national newspapers the study also found that between September 2000 and September 2004 97 home workers were brutally tortured (severely beaten up, poured hot water on, scalded with hot iron or injured with a sharp object), 139 were killed, 40 were raped and nine went missing.

We can either add to these statistics by being completely complacent of the whole issue or do something to change it, by becoming aware, ourselves, and those around us. Home workers will still be there to help us around the house, but at least they can be given the respect they deserve.


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