Half a century as a domestic worker
Born in 1960 into a large family in the village of Boroi, Rangpur, Sultana never went to school. Her father sold puffed rice on the streets, and her mother resorted to begging after his death shortly after the Liberation War. She's lost one sister to childbirth, and two brothers to food scarcity in post-liberation Bangladesh.
“There were many days when we were starving for food. I had no option but to become a housemaid,” she said.
At only 10 or 11 years old, Sultana became a domestic worker in a villager’s home. In exchange, she would get meals and board. Her employers married her off at 13, to an orphaned day labourer who earned Tk 50 per day. Sometimes, he would only get rice instead of wages.
“My husband was useless, he only wanted to have physical interactions. I had trouble being intimate after giving birth, but he never listened and forced himself on me. ”
After their divorce, she went back to domestic work in the village. She said the family supported her during a trying time, but burst into tears when remembering her struggles.
“It was for food only, nothing else, and food is like gold. I have worked without money for so long, just in exchange for food.”
However, river erosion uprooted the family she worked for, and Sultana had to find other means.
“When I first came to Dhaka during the early 80s, I lived on the streets. Then I found work at Azimpur Staff Colony. They allowed me to stay under the stairs in their building, and I earned Tk 50 per month. Eventually, I managed more work and earned Tk 550 per month.”
Later on, she became a full-time domestic worker at Kalabagan for Tk1800 per month, where she worked for 20 years.
“They fixed my salary at Tk1800, year after year. I did not have any days off. However, they did give me Zakaat, and I saved up and bought land in my village. But the river took even that away from me.”
“I finally decided to become a part-time worker, and give myself a day off. My employers are not happy with this, but I have grown old.”
Now, her monthly income is Tk 4000, and she lives in a slum with her sister. Her grandson is in grade nine, and she worries that after her death, it will be difficult for him to continue his studies.
“My fate did not support me. I suffered a lot for food. I have spent almost half a century dreaming of three full meals a day. I want my grandson to overcome this crisis through education and fulfill our dreams before I die,” shared Sultana.
Disguising unpaid child labour as 'housemaids'
Kohinur Akhter is 35 now, but was only eight when she came to Dhaka. For the first ten years of employment, she did not receive any wages – only food and board. While Kohinur was never beaten or tortured physically, she eventually left the house.
“Everyone treated me like I have no future and I would just marry a driver one day. I did not want that life. My employers were nice to me, but sometimes I feel frustrated that I was a domestic worker for a decade, but I was never paid,” said Kohinur.
According to Nazrul Islam, “there is a trend of hiring under-18 domestic workers from villages, for whom living in the city with three meals a day is a big deal. There are also middle men who negotiate the process and convince parents to overlook the basic human rights of their children,” added Nazrul Islam.
“The Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy 2015 requires these workers to be registered at the Union Parishad level, but most people do not do so out of fear of social stigma.”
Full implementation of existing policy
When the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy 2015 came into being, it was lauded for its clear direction to recognize domestic work as formal labour and ensure the rights of domestic workers. Amongst a number of directives, it requires payment of salaries within the first seven days of the month, one month advance notice before redundancy, resting time, registration of domestic workers, days off, other leaves and support with healthcare costs.
The policy also focuses on wage contracts, with part-time domestic workers being paid on an hourly basis, and full-time workers according to each month. However, the idea of having contracts between employers and domestic workers is a far cry from reality.
BILS research has shown that the helpline for domestic workers are reluctant to take calls from anonymous callers and requires full disclosure. This lack of response and support means that domestic workers, even if they are aware of the existence of the helpline, are reluctant to use it.
In February 2017, the High Court also directed the government to form monitoring bodies to protect the rights of domestic workers, but according to rights activists, the central monitoring cell is still barely functional.
According to Aminul Islam, Member Secretary of the central monitoring cell, the main brunt of their work focuses on awareness raising.
“We don't work directly with domestic workers, but when these incidents are reported to us, especially incidents of violence and abuse, we make sure to deal with it. We focus on changing mindsets – for example, when you call a woman a 'bua' and not her name, she loses her identity, and we ask people to act more humanely towards domestic workers.”
However, it was unclear whether any process existed where domestic workers could bring their grievances to the monitoring cell. Aminul Islam said that while there is no specific union that organizes domestic workers together, field level government offices and NGOs can bring their grievances to the monitoring cell.
“There are a lot of factors, including poverty, that push people into domestic work, but as the economy improves, people will no longer need to be part of the informal labour market, and domestic workers can come under the legal protection given to formal sector workers,” he added.
However, Member Secretary of Domestic Workers Right Network Nazma Yesmin said that to truly empower women and make them part of the national economy, there is a need for full implementation of the policy.
“If both parties sign the contract as mentioned in the policy, only then the can the informal sector transform into a formal sector, and we can properly assess the contribution of domestic workers.”
“We cannot empower these women if we are not willing to even acknowledge their rights and ensure their safety and proper working conditions,” she emphasized.