Marium comes from a poor family of six brothers and sisters, with an unemployed father. When she was 11, a cousin convinced her to leave her home in Rangpur to work as a housemaid in Dhaka.
“We never had enough. My parents were bitter towards me, as I am a girl. So, I decided to come to Dhaka,” said Marium, now aged 14. “My first employers assured me that I would be a part of their family. But that was not the case. Even their nine-year-old child slapped me,” she added.
Marium had hoped that in the city, she would be able to pursue her education. But over the next few years, she had four employers, each worse than the previous.
“I had to clean all the rooms, cook for them, wash their clothes and run all their errands,” Marium said. They forced her to work so many hours that she often got only three hours of sleep at night. She never had a day off.
Marium now lives with an aunt, and works part-time at several houses in the city’s area.
According to rights activists, child labour is increasing day by day in Bangladesh. Two-thirds of working middle-class people employ children as domestic aides. The children are made to do household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and running errands, and even care for other children, the elderly or the disabled. They are often not paid, but work for food, lodging and old clothes.
Although the government has pledged to eliminate child labour by 2015, in reality, it is far from being achieved.
Since 2006, there has been no survey on the number of child domestic workers in our country. In 2006, an ILO baseline survey found about 3.2 million child labourers in Bangladesh. Among them, 421,000 were employed as domestic aides, and 75 percent were girls, who were particularly vulnerable as they worked behind closed doors.
Shibly Sadek, a child rights researcher, said employing children for housework is a widespread practice in Bangladesh. The majority of child domestic workers tend to be aged between 12 and 17. In his research, he also found children as young as five or six working at people’s homes.
Sadek said 50 percent of child domestic aides work 12 to 14 hours a day, and irrespective of their gender, they do all sorts of housework. They are often the least paid in society, their salaries ranging from Tk80 to 400 per month. In most cases, they hand over all the earnings to their parents, leaving nothing for themselves.
Sultan Uddin Mahmud, senior executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said the Ministry of Labour and Employment has adopted National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010, which provides a framework for eradicating all forms of child labour by 2015.
The policy aims include removing children from hazardous jobs, improving income-generating opportunities for parents so they don’t rely on children’s incomes, and offering incentives for working children to attend school. Fahima Nasrin, vice president of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, contradicted the officials, saying: “There are hazards associated with cooking, like boiling water or chopping vegetables. Burns are relatively common among child domestic workers.”
State Minister of Labour and Employment Monnujan Sufian said an employer’s house never becomes a true home. The children are treated neither as a family member nor as a worker. They are treated as property, and they are used according to the employer’s wishes and whims, she said.
“We know all those things. In the current situation, we cannot achieve our goal to eliminate child labour by 2015. You have to consider the reality,” Monnujan said.