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        Volume 11 |Issue 40| October 12, 2012 |


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Human Rights

Cleaning Up Our Act

Domestic workers have long been absent from Bangladesh's labour laws and child domestic workers particularly invisible to the law and to society. International and national NGOs recently presented the government a draft law which would ensure the legal recognition and protection of domestic workers young and old.

Soraya Auer

Most parents of child domestic workers do not have an address for their child in the city. Photo: Munir Ahmed Ananta

Confident and hardworking, Nilu is a 14-year-old juvenile domestic worker. She lives happily with her elderly employers. “My first job was when I was seven. I was looking after a baby,” she says as she stirs daal in the kitchen. “Someone from my village brought me into this house to clean but she left last month so I was promoted. I'm now learning to cook for the family.” She adds with a proud grin, “I much prefer to cook.”

Nilu is one of an estimated 400,000 children working in private homes across the country. Her situation, fortunately, is a positive one. While Nilu hasn't been to school in years, she has learnt to read and write Bangla, Maths and some simple English through tutors at her current employers' apartment. She also gets at least three consecutive months of leave a year when her employers travel to visit their children. “Looking after the infant was constantly hard work,” she remembers. “Here I get paid more, have hours to myself during the day, and I like the lady I work for.”

However, when asked if Nilu's parents could find her if they wanted to, she looks puzzled. “Probably not because they don't know the city, or the full address,” she says adding, “Why?”

It is a reality that most families don't know where their children are living and working once they have left their village. Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights organisation, believes this is dangerous for the safety and future of working children. “In a pilot survey we did in Mymensingh of 182 households, 139 had sent children to work in cities and out of those, only nine [6.5 percent] knew the actual address of where their child was staying,” says Gita Chakraborty, Senior Deputy Director of ASK's Child Rights Unit. She believes that even if the employer is known and trusted because s/he is originally from the same village or area, this is not a guarantee for the children's safety and protection. Chakraborty says, “Families trust someone else to take their child to a house they don't know without realising how this is unsafe migration for children.”

To address this and other neglected issues facing domestic workers, ASK, with assistance from Save the Children, consulted domestic workers, including children, employers, lawyers and others to produce a draft Domestic Workers' Registration and Protection Act 2012. “The only legislation that currently addresses domestic workers is The Domestic Servants Registration Ordinance which was made well before we were even a country, in 1961, and the word servant is just inappropriate,” says Advocate Tapos Bandhu Das, one of the lawyers behind the proposed law. “It is highly discriminatory against the domestic worker and only offers protection to the employer like in cases of theft.” Das explains how the last section of the proposed law would repel this prejudiced legislation.

The draft law dictates domestic workers, before leaving their village municipality, are to register themselves and their employer's details with a registrar (either the chairman of an union council, ward councillor of a city or municipal corporation or a person appointed by them to perform the duties of registrar as stated in the Act) and how once in their place of work, the domestic worker and employer are to register with the employer's local registrar within 10 days.

Many things have been taken into consideration. Das explains, “There is a reason why we are not relying on the police or law enforcement agencies at all in the registration process. They are already very busy with other duties and people would not feel comfortable. The police station is not child or domestic worker friendly.”

While domestic workers cook most meals in the home, they are the last to eat and have complained of receiving stale or bad food.
Photo: Munir Ahmed Ananta

Das clarifies, “There is no protection in the law by nature, because the registration is protection. The draft law is not meant to overlap with existing legislation, such as the Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain (Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act) and the Penal Code, which deals with cases of assault, torture and other violence against domestic workers.” The lawyer sums up, “It stops domestic workers, including child workers, from being invisible to the law, and ensures social protection and action can be taken in future.”

The draft law would effectively formalise the relationship between the worker and the employer, with the registration acting much like an appointment letter, and provide legal protection to both parties should anything go wrong. Das highlights, “Employers can be the vulnerable one too. If workers leave the job without notification or a non-residential worker doesn't come for seven days, employers can officially cancel the employment.” He also adds, “Say a girl working for you runs away. It can be embarrassing, shameful or difficult to have to find the girl or give an explanation to her family, because there can be accusations and so on so the provisions keep this in mind.”

Mena Begum is a 35-year-old domestic worker with a 17-year-old daughter. Her husband left her 15 years ago and she has been working ever since. “My daughter started working five years ago because my parents died and my brother couldn't keep her. I would've preferred it if she'd finished school because she could've got into a different profession that way but what can you do,” says Begum, who works from 6am until 11pm seven days a week. “We talk almost every day. She works in a different city, so we hardly see one another unless it's Eid.”

When asked if Begum knew her and her daughter's rights as domestic workers, she chuckles. “What rights? My job is safe as long as I don't complain, that's my only right.”

The draft law addresses the right to a day off a week and reasonable working conditions such as living arrangement and hours. However, the real issue at hand is the fundamental lack of awareness among domestic workers themselves at what is going on, on their behalf, and among employers as what is reasonable and humane to expect from these workers.

“Some employers have asked 'what's in it for us if we bring our child domestic workers to your drop-in centres to be educated, and then they leave us',” says Chakraborty, ASK's Senior Deputy Director of the Child Rights Unit. “And we would say it is their right as workers to leave employment. Keeping the children is not unlike slavery. What they should get out of it is the satisfaction that they are doing the right thing and making a difference to someone's life.”

Sultana Kamal, Executive Director of ASK, who believes that inequality between domestic workers and their employers is unfortunately “a big monster” in society, says, “We handed over the draft law to the Law Minister Shafique Ahmed but it is unlikely to see Parliament in this government's tenure because it is a 'soft issue'.”

“Domestic workers are not a priority on the government's agenda,” believes Chakraborty. “The Law Minister said this is not the law ministry's area, 'the labour ministry needs to bring it to us'. So we have noticed with everything that we do, cooperation between the ministries is necessary.” Commenting on how the process is dragged out, she adds, “It's very bureaucratic.”

Das believes that having done the work for the government means there are no more excuses. “Domestic workers were not included or recognised in the labour laws of 2006, and the government would make excuses, saying it couldn't because of a lack of budget, that it's difficult to achieve, and it doesn't fit with the current infrastructure and so on. This law would not allow for these excuses.” The lawyer adds, “It will make the government responsible.”

According to research conducted by NGOs, the response to change for domestic workers, particularly children, is positive. “We have positive support from villages and local secretary ward councils,” says Das.

“Last month, employers brought more than 750 child domestic workers to our Child Domestic Workers Convention and those children made a declaration of demands they'd like to be seen put in place,” informs Chakraborty. These included not being wrongly accused of stealing when something was lost, not being locked in, not being beaten for making a mistake, and not being made to do risky or insulting jobs. The demands ended with the heartbreaking requests for a 'clean place to stay and clean bathroom to use' and not to be given 'stale or bad food'.

The informal nature of domestic work at present means many work at the mercy of their employers.
Photo: Munir Ahmed Ananta

One of the biggest struggles in creating this draft law has been an internal one facing NGOs when weighing up the reality on the ground and their ideological aims. Sultana Kamal says, “It is a serious self-contradiction because we are working towards eradicating child labour and here we are recognising it in a law so that they are given some measure of protection.”

Das also defends this decision, saying, “Whether we like it or not, child labour will remain. NGOs were opposed to recognising child labour in this legislation but they see providing a minimum of protection is clearly better than having nothing considering the reality.”

For young Nilu, reality is all she knows and what might come of this draft law is something she's not expecting. “I know my life could have gone other ways, better and worse, but I'm glad I don't have to make some of these demands,” she says as she looks at the declaration made by 750 other child and juvenile workers like herself. But the more she reads the more she realises she agrees with all of it, from it being the government's responsibility to secure her parents' livelihoods so she could study instead of work to putting in place an authority that keeps in touch with her and protects her. She smiles sadly as she points to the demand that there should not be any inequality or discrimination between the employer's child and the child domestic worker, possibly thinking of her first job. “It'd be nice if this one could be true.”

The names of domestic workers in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.


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