Much like other crises driven topics, concerns about domestic workers rights only gets spotlight when it is associated with tragedies or unfortunate occurrences. Although the vulnerable group of domestic workers face abuse and violence almost on a regular basis, very few make it out of the walls they are caged in.
According to Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, Bangladesh is a country with 2 million domestic workers which is one of its biggest informal sectors. Despite their pivotal roles in households and the economy, the challenges faced by domestic workers remain a pressing issue that calls for comprehensive policy and legal backing from the government.
Whenever there is news on torturing domestic workers, it gets everyone’s attention. But it has always been an issue without any permanent solution so far.
- Lack of Recognition: Since domestic workers mostly work within the privacy of one’s home, recognizing domestic workers becomes challenging. At times, due to domestic work not being considered a socially dignified job, the domestic workers feel shy to talk freely about their occupation. Their contribution is not considered part of the GDP. Even the government has no reliable estimate of how many people are employed as domestic workers. In general, it is assumed that roughly 2 million people are employed as domestic workers. However, a smaller magnitude is indicated by the official statistics provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics through its 2006 Labour Force Survey (LFS). There are 331,000 domestic workers and maid servants in the nation who are 15 years of age or older, according to the LFS.
- Lack of Reporting: In many cases, domestic workers are underage children, who are unable to report any torture or violence that they go through. Oftentimes there are restrictions on their coming out of the houses they work in. According to ILO-UNICEF Baseline Survey 2007, the number of total child domestic workers in Bangladesh is 420,000. Even the adult domestic workers are not conscious or educated enough to correctly report such occurrences.
- Inadequacy of Law: The Labor Act, 2006 does not recognize domestic workers by Section 1(4) (NA). According to The Domestic Servants Registration Ordinance, 1961 all domestic workers have to be registered under the police station of the area. However, it has not happened in practice. Since a significant part of domestic workers are underaged, the National Child Labour Elimination Policy, 2010 can be used in specific cases. On a larger scale, the first ever international convention on Domestic Workers, the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 of the ILO is yet to be in force in Bangladesh. On the other hand, the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy, 2015 is a policy and not a law. Hence it requires complementary laws.
The Emergence of Domestic Workers’ Protection and Welfare Policy
The failure of The Labor Act, 2006 to recognize the rights of domestic workers grabbed the attention of labor unions, activists and NGOs. The Domestic Workers Rights Network (DWRN), a coalition of 30 trade unions, labor organizations and NGOs was formed in light of this. Then Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF), a pro-worker coalition, joined in representing the interests and stakes of employers. Although the two committees united with a singular demand for a national policy, there were differences in their objectives and methods of achieving the objective.
It took nine years of combined efforts from all the stakeholders before the policy came into being in 2015. Back in 2008, the Ministry of Labour and Employment entrusted the DWRN to submit a draft ‘Code of Conduct’ for domestic workers. The initial draft underwent two rounds of revisions and finally, the DWRN produced a document entitled ‘Domestic Workers’ Protection and Welfare Policy’ (DWPWP) in 2010. After a long period of scrutiny and revisions, the DWPWP was finally presented before a cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The policy received official approval from the cabinet on 21st December 2015.
The DPDW policy had a total of 16 promising provisions that could potentially change the power dynamics that exist between workers and employers. The policy set out responsibilities for the employers, workers, and the government. It addressed the healthcare benefits, legal recognition, working hours, minimum age, and wage issues of domestic workers. It also laid out rules and procedures about ensuring justice in case of physical, mental, or sexual abuse. The policy was a breakthrough as it was the first institutional policy to help domestic workers. However, in terms of practice, proper enforcement of the policy still remains a challenge.
The Domestic Workers' Protection and Welfare Policy in Brief
While the policy formulation was a win for both the domestic workers and the employers, we see that both parties faced trade-offs upon closer inspection. And the policy had to settle in a more subjective stance, being open to interpretation.
The revisions of the draft had to deviate to less rigid provisions, evident in many matters of interest such as:
Other Measures taken by the Government
- Establishment of Support Centre Helpline:
On March 15, 2015, in a press release by the ILO, a help line was launched with the title “Help line launched for Bangladesh worker safety and rights”
The helpline-0800 44 55 000 would be the new call for help used by workers to resolve issues regarding workplace safety and their human rights. Established with the support of the ILO and Royal Norwegian government, the helpline will be managed by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE).
- Formation of Monitoring Cell:
The Ministry of Labor and Employment formed several monitoring cells for inspecting and monitoring the domestic workers. In the case of harassment and abuse, the local laws and applicable which includes the High Court guidelines against sexual harassment. In other cases, the government will take responsibility for providing the guidelines of handling such cases and to ensure justice prevails.
Implementation of existing laws and ensuring justice in cases of every kind of exploitation or abuse. This to be arranged by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Women and Children Social Welfare.
In 2022, after almost seven years since the formulation of the policy, the High Court had ruled, asking the relevant stakeholders over the inaction of the policy. There remains significant challenges in practical implementation of the policy from any major stakeholders. The lack of awareness about the DWPWP 2015 among domestic workers, employers, and the masses stands as the biggest failure of the policy to its path of execution.
According to Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies assessment, Only 14% DW heard about Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2015 and no employer know about it. Due to their ignorance, domestic employees are unable to get paid leave, healthcare benefits, or legal protection from physical, mental, or sexual abuse. According to the assessment, 44.8% of domestic workers have at least been slapped at their workplace and 27.6% have been kicked or buffeted at work. Additionally, just one out of every three domestic workers got no vacation or holiday, and even then, their wages are withheld for those specific working days. 50% of the 12 to 18-year-old child domestic employees have encountered some form of occupational harassment.
In terms of the other policies laid out, the BILS assessment said that no maternity leave was seen in practice. Even though the policy outlines in its section 7.9 that domestic workers have to be paid compensation for any injury during work, that has not materialized according to the same assessment.
The absence of sufficient monitoring of the domestic worker protection system is a major challenge to overcome in the coming days. Since domestic workers’ rights are mostly violated within the privacy of their home, it imposes significant challenges in terms of monitoring if the domestic workers themselves do not come forward with evidence. A majority of domestic workers are women and children, who are constrained by numerous social norms and taboos and that limits their scope to file complaints in the event of harassment or violation. Due to all these reasons, the domestic workers still have low wages, suicide cases, sexual violence, mental and physical torture etc.
However, the national emergency helpline, 999 has opened an avenue for domestic workers to instantly report any case of violence against them. Massive popularization of 999 can largely contribute to the monitoring of domestic workers’ rights.
The Gaps that Need Addressing
Future Scopes and Prospects
To truly combat violations against domestic workers and to protect their rights, the enactment of the DWPWP under the law is vital. If necessary, complementary laws should be enacted to create legal bindings.
To overcome the gaps and to ensure a better future for the domestic workers, the following steps can be taken:
- Recognizing domestic workers under the labor law. This can ensure minimum wage, fixed working hours, and warrant them general labor rights.
- Establishing a location based trade union or organization for the domestic workers so they have a collective voice to advocate their rights, empower themselves and improve their working conditions.
- Creation of an ID card/registration system for the domestic workers to regulate their area of work and for the ease of training and upskilling purposes.
- Institutionalizing the recruitment process, with licensed organizations that can be held accountable for any misconduct with the domestic workers.
- Increasing awareness among domestic workers about their rights can bring positive changes. Educating them on using the helpline numbers in the event of violent occurrences can play a big role.
About the Author
Nowshin Nawar Prioty is a Sophomore of the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka.