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     Volume 8 Issue 67 | May 1, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Making it More Endurable

When 8-year-old Farida fried three chillies instead of two, as instructed by her employer, 27-year-old Bithi Khandaker, Farida was punished, as all children are when they make mistakes or do not follow instructions. However, in Farida's case, Bithi went slightly overboard. She poured a pan filled with hot cooking oil on Farida, disfiguring a part of her face. For two days after that, Bithi and her family tried to hide the crime, until neighbours found out and complained to the police. Farida's older sister Rekha filed a case against Bithi with the police. Bithi was arrested, but released after three days. Because Bithi's husband worked in the Middle East and earned more in that neighbourhood of Munshiganj, the family would flaunt power in the community. None had the courage to speak or act against Bithi or her family. To end this as discreetly as possible, Farida's family was paid a measly amount of Tk 5,000. The case was finally forgotten.


Elita Karim
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

An age-old norm in this part of the world, every household employs domestic help to do the cleaning and the cooking.

The Labour Law 2006 (of Bangladesh) clearly states that a worker has the right to rest and recreation during and after work hours. In fact, the law ensures the workers security, the right to take his or her employer to court in case of an offence, compensations in case of accidents, weekly and yearly holidays, a proper salary fixed by the government and in some cases, education facilities for young workers. In a nut shell, the compliance law has played a significant role in developing the lives and maintaining the self respect of these workers.

The law, however, does not apply to individuals working in sectors other than the RMG or similar industries, for instance domestic workers. An age-old norm in this part of the world, every household employs domestic help to do the cleaning and the cooking. For decades, this informal sector has been growing and today there are more than 20 lakh domestic workers in urban homes of Dhaka and Chittagong alone. Despite this burgeoning sector, domestic workers are considered informal labourers. Moreover, the government does not recognise them as workers with rights, as in the case of factory workers. “Domestic workers are not included in the Labour Law 2006,” says Nazma Yesmin, the Programme Officer of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS). “They have no fixed amount for salary or working hours. There are no rules or regulations which can be followed by the employer or the domestic worker.” Obviously, one of the biggest secters in the country is in a mess.

A majority of these home-workers being young and female, they are much more prone to exploitation.

It is mainly because of this exemption from law, that domestic workers are exploited each day. For one thing, these workers are not provided with the basic necessities. A majority of these home-workers being young and female, they are much more prone to exploitation, sometimes even sexual harassment.

On March 12, 2009, in Dhanmondi, 8-year-old domestic worker Shapla was attacked with a hot iron spatula (khunti) for a mishap in the kitchen. According to Shapla, this is not the first time that her employer had physically assaulted her. She says that her employer would hit her head hard with a comb if her rutis were not made in the perfect shape. Her employer also hit her on her back several times. She was made to do all the work in her employer's home and not given much to eat. “Domestic workers do not even have a proper place to sleep!” exclaims Nazma.

If children under the age of 14 are employed as domestic workers, they should be provided with education, food and recreation leaves.

According to a BILS survey report, 40 per cent of domestic workers are made to sleep in the drawing room or in the middle of the master bedroom on the floor. Even today, quite a large percentage of domestic workers, 33.33 per cent are made to sleep in the kitchen. While only 6.67 per cent of all domestic workers are actually given sleeping quarters or their own rooms, 16.69 per cent are made to accommodate themselves in the balcony and about 3.33 per cent sleep in store rooms.

Recently the Domestic Worker's Rights Network organised a press conference, urging the government to pass a law whereupon the rights and security of the domestic workers will be protected. BILS also urged the authorities to take immediate steps to incorporate domestic workers in the Labour Law to ensure their rights. Speaking at the press conference, Nazrul Islam Khan, the executive director of BILS mentioned the tragic deaths of at least 305 domestic workers due to violence on the part of the employers. The study was made by the organisation based on reports published in different dailies from 2001 to 2008. Not only the law, he said, but also a strong social movement is also required to eliminate violence against domestic workers. The Domestic Worker's Rights Network was established in 2006 with the active alliance of 22 organisations. Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) works as the secretariat of the network.

Nazma points out how dependent households in Bangladesh are on domestic workers. “They are more like managers, who actually take care of your household while you are out working,” she explains. According to Nazma, a large number of domestic workers are tortured physically, mentally and also sexually harassed on a regular basis. “The other day I visited Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) when I came across a young girl carrying a baby,” she says. “The young girl was a domestic worker in Dhaka. The employer took advantage of her one night when his wife was spending the night outside at her mother's. After she was discovered pregnant, she was immediately sent off. The employer did not take responsibility of the baby either.”

The government should make an effort to create a database of domestic workers.

On January 14, 2008, in Mohammadpur, 14-year-old Shumi was beaten and tortured to death by her employers Shah Mohammad Kamrul Hassan and Yasmin Mallik Rani. Shumi's father filed a case against them. While Rani was out on bail because of her young baby, her husband is still in jail. The case is still undergoing a very slow trial. Shumi's body was filled with marks of torture and severe beating, including burns on her scalp, face and wounds all over her body.

Nazma says that there are no national data records of domestic workers working in this country. “Which is a shame,” she says. “We have taken into account the urban homes in Dhaka and Chittagong only, calculating at least 20 lakh domestic workers. Just imagine the actual number!” Nazma says that the government should make an effort to create a database of domestic workers. “Not only should they be recognised as workers and be included in the Labour Law, but their earnings should also be included in the GDP calculations.”

To bring all domestic workers under legal protection, a memorandum was submitted to the Ministry of Labour and Employment on 9 January 2008. “A code of conduct was initially made and submitted as well” says Nazma. “We are still awaiting a response.”

The memorandum has been divided into three parts, according to the roles to be played

The government should keep track of the domestic workers and the employees once they register with their nearest police stations.

by the employer, the domestic worker and the government. According to the memorandum, a contract or a work order should be made with the domestic worker prior to starting work. The contract must include the kind of work that the domestic worker is expected to do, details regarding finance and salary, work hours, holidays, off days, relaxation period, providing education facilities etc. Upon employment, the domestic worker will have to be presented with a photo identity card. The worker's name, permanent address, details regarding the employer etc. will have to be registered with the nearest police station. Domestic workers should be allowed a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night and 4 hours for rest and recreation during the day. Yearly holidays (totalling to a minimum of 14 days) should be arranged in such a way that domestic workers are able to celebrate their respective religious festivals and / or enjoy time with their family members and friends. Weekly holidays must also be given to the domestic workers, where upon they will not be made to work and will be allowed to go out with permission from their guardians. Domestic workers should also be provided with a proper sleeping area and healthy environment. Along with education, domestic workers should also be provided with regular medical facilities. In fact, pregnant workers are to be given maternity leave and are to be exempted from carrying heavy objects while at work. In case of an accident while working, a domestic worker will have to be compensated for by the employer accordingly. A domestic worker should give a month's notice to the employer if he or she wishes to resign.

The government should also fix the wages of domestic workers accordingly. The government is also to punish or take appropriate actions in case of torture physical or mental and sexual harassment of the domestic worker by the employer. The government should keep track of the domestic workers and the employees once they register with their nearest police stations. Establishment of special monitoring cells should be made in every area in the country by the ministry of labour. This way, the authorities will be able to monitor the workers' safety and security through their respective monitoring teams by visiting homes on a regular basis. Domestic workers themselves will also be able to visit these monitoring cells and place complaints if any. Moreover, the cells can also be contacted through letters, over the phone and also via the help-line to be created by the government.

The memorandum also proposes that children under the age of 14 should not be employed as domestic workers. However, in a country like ours where a large number of people are extremely poor, younger children are either sent to beg or work at dangerous places. Unfortunately, they do not have any other way of survival. “If children under the age of 14 are employed as domestic workers, they should be provided with education, food and recreation leaves,” says Nazma. “And the child will be allowed to work for not more than 5-6 hours.”

The recognition of domestic workers as working and earning individuals in society and also including them in the Labour Law, might not solve all the problems. It is a moral obligation on employers and the so-called educated members of the society to exercise patience and restraint in their interactions with home workers. Being a little more humane, on the part of the employers, will definitely have great benefits in the long run.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009