The Invisible Millions

by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star Cover Story, May 4, 2007]

A typical middle-class family employs a single homeworker (varying from age anywhere from 10 to 40, mostly women and girls) who is responsible for all the work in the house. She has to wake up earliest in the morning and prepare breakfast for everyone in the house and also the Tiffin for the school-going children of the house. She has to get the children ready for school. Then she has to clean the furnsiture and sweep the whole house and wash the clothes. After which she has to cut and clean the raw food for preparing lunch. Sometimes she has to clean the toilets. After everyone in the house has had lunch and she has completed eating whatever leftover that has been handed down to her she has to clean the dishes.

Besides the packed routine of work from dawn to midnight she has to be available at the beck and call of all the members of the house which if she delays by the fraction of a minute brings on an onslaught of verbal abuse and sometimes even a slap on the face depending on the mood of her employer. Rarely is she ever called by her real name. Her status in society is the lowest and calling her by ‘cheri’ or ‘chemri’ (or ‘chamra’ for boys) suffices in getting her attention. ‘Tumi’ and ‘apni’ referrals are only reserved for the privileged, homeworkers or the more prevalent term used for them ‘domestic servants’ are only referred by ‘tui’. She is rarely allowed to use any of the luxuries in the house — like watching TV, getting in touch with her family on the phone, sitting on the sofa and sleeping on a proper bed. And while the madam of the house piles on the pounds and complains how her latest fad diet isn’t helping out in getting her beautiful figure back, the malnourished maid of the house is scolded for not getting her a glass of water on time.

Home workers have to work all day, with little chance of getting a break.

Many of the homeworkers are below the age of 15, which means that not only are they deprived of enjoying a healthy childhood with creative exploits, but they also grow up without knowing how to write their own name. It’s a vicious cycle of poverty as generation after generation remain uneducated and is incapable of getting a better job. Even though some employers claim to teach their homeworkers, what they really need is to go to a strictly regulated school.

Home workers are the last ones to eat in the house with whatever leftovers are available.

Girl homeworkers are even more at a disadvantage. Rarely, if ever, are they allowed to go out. Even a trip to the balcony or the rooftop is received with a sharp reprimand. When the whole family leaves the house, the homeworker is locked up from the outside, leaving her defenceless in the event of a fire. The girl homeworker is also in danger of being sexually exploited by the men of the house. Many of the employers instead of charging their husbands take it out on the poor girls, who are further abused.

After all this abuse, homeworkers are not allowed to take time off from work anytime during the week and seldom allowed to visit their families. The traditional thought that employers are doing these poor children a favour by giving them a job and letting them earn some money is not valid as what they are paid is not even the bare minimum.

Girls who work in homes are rarely allowed to go outside the house.

This is the most unorganised sector where women and children are insanely exploited while practically nothing is being done by the authorities. There are no unions for homeworkers and so every day hundreds of thousands of homeworkers are overworked, exploited, abused and sometimes even killed without any hope of ever getting justice. Most of the homeworkers come from the villages and have little knowledge about anything in the city. So when they are regularly abused they do not know who to complain to.

While they work 16 hours every day, they are not even recognised as workers by labour organisations. So the basic rights of a minimum wage, proper working hours and safe working conditions are irrelevant for them. This magazine has over the years highlighted the miserable plight of the homeworkers and how extreme form of abuse has led to the death of many homeworkers at the hands of their employers. Sadly, none of these cases ever received justice. The employers have always come to some financial understanding with the abused families and got away from any jail sentence, which would have been unthinkable in any other country.

In September last year, homeworkers Madhabi Majhi and Moni Mala were pushed off a six-storey building of a house in Dhanmondi by their employer Kalpana Majumder. Moni Mala died on the spot and Madhabi was later amazingly taken back to the killers’ home. BNWLA lawyers later rescued her and sent her back to her parents. In May 2004, the 10-year-old Mostakina revealed how her employer Fatema Doza regularly tortured her by making her drink her children’s urine and putting a heated iron to her arms. In March of the same year, Shirin, a 14-year-old domestic worker in Rajshahi was raped and killed by her employers. In 2005, 15-year-old Fancy became the victim of a sadistic brother and sister duo Shayesta Shajid and Miraj who would regularly slap and punch her in the abdomen. Sometimes she was hit on the head until blood started to ooze and was often scalded by a heated cooking spoon. She was severely tortured once and left to die by the Buriganga riverbank where she miraculously survived to tell her tale.

One of the reasons they are the lowest paid workers is because their work is not even recognised by the law.

The saddest part of the story is that most of these abused homeworkers are children. While the employers’ children of the same age go to school and don’t even have to raise a finger to drink a glass of water, a homeworker of the same age has to do virtually all the work in the house.

Faustina Pereira, deputy director of Research and Advocacy at Ain o Shalish Kendro

We only have to look towards our neighbour India to see how much they have progressed with their labour laws. The government recently passed a law making it illegal for children under the age of 14 to be employed anywhere. Until the law was passed recently, it was legal to employ children of any age as homeworkers in India. This is now illegal and offenders may have to serve a prison sentence of up to a year. Anti-Slavery International has been campaigning for years to have child domestic labour banned. But that is not all. India also has labour unions fighting for homeworkers’ rights including working hours, work environment and minimum wages. The Mumbai Domestic Workers Welfare Association (MDWWA) is currently demanding that domestic workers be included in the Unorganised Labour Bill and also pressing to have the Domestic Workers Bill, 1998, passed by the government. Under the new anti-slavery law in Thailand, a Bangkok businesswoman was convicted to seven years in jail for keeping a young girl from rural Thailand as a slave and was also sentenced to three and a half years in jail for “inflicting severe physical harm” on the girl she forced to be her maid and ordered to pay 200,000 Baht to the girl in compensation for her time in bondage.

A spic and span bathroom, at the cost of the homeworkers’ sweat.

Faustina Pereira, an Advocate of the Supreme Court and the Deputy Director of Research and Advocacy at Ain o Shalish Kendro (ASK) believes that changes need to be made immediately so that homeworkers can work in a conducive environment and they are recognised as ‘workers’ in the informal sector. “According to all the research that I have done in this sector there is no law that formally recognises work done at home or legislates workers at home either done by children or adults,” says Pereira, “There is a very unclear distinction between formal and informal labour. If domestic work falls in the informal labour sector then the question arises about how this sector can be regulated.” Pereira talks about the regulation that was set up a few years ago where home owners were asked to submit the name, address and photograph of the homeworkers in their house with the police station. “Our speculation was that it was not done for the protection of the homeworkers, it was rather a regulatory tool to track down homeworkers (if they ran away),” she says.

Pereira is very impressed with the laws that regulate homeworkers in neighbouring Kolkata. “Under the laws there, homeworkers can not only get themselves registered with a co-operative society, but their work hours and salaries are regulated accordingly and they have a complaints procedure and tribunal,” she says, “and we can see the immediate impact of that in Kolkata. In Dhaka we haven’t even started talking about these things.”

Pereira believes that it is very important to first recognise (home-working) as an informal labour sector. “We have to bring them under the labour laws and make sure they are effectuated and get it recognised by a national association.”

No one is bothered about the home workers’ basic right to education.

Talking about India’s ban on child labour for children under the age of 14 Pereira feels that is not really solving the problem. “We need to see what protective measures are being put into place and what alternatives are being provided to these children.” Although she says that it is theoretically possible to abolish child labour from Bangladesh she questions whether it would be a practical choice under the social and economic circumstances of the country. “In 1993 when Senator Tom Harkin made a very grand declaration that the US would not receive any products that were manufactured by child workers, we really appreciated it. But immediately after that there was a big slump in many countries, which employed child labour like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The bigger slump apart from the economic slump was that the families of these children suffered enormously,” says Pereira, “another immediate effect was that once these children had nothing to do and were not under the supervision of their parents, many of these children perished psychologically and were exploited sexually because they were left unattended for long hours. Then we learned about a whole new trade of human organs and bones.”

From the parents’ side Pereira believes that an incentive needs to be created for parents to send their children to school instead of sending them to work and it has to be made cost effective to parents. “We need to identify where these homeworkers are coming from like the monga areas and areas where there is a high level of poverty,” she says, “we need to tell the parents of these areas not to send their children here and explain what the perils are. Secondly, even if they do send them, they need to know the exact address and details of where they are sending them. The mistake parents make is that they just send their children to a house and don’t realise that after that, the door is closed for them.”

Children of the same age. One plays with his toys while the other works.

And what happens behind these closed doors sometimes appear in little columns of our newspapers. This magazine has time and again brought forward and demanded punishment for perpetrators of the worst kind of crimes. Unfortunately these abusers, and in some cases murderers made a mockery of the law and got away with a small financial settlement with the homeworkers’ families every time. Faustina Pereira talks about the intricacies in the lack of justice. “In all of these cases, the police, without any delay file a UD (Unnatural Death) case,” she says, “even when there is ample evidence (of say, strangulation).” It’s very difficult to talk to homeworkers about the abuse they endure because they don’t trust any outsiders very easily. “They associate you with a certain class,” adds Pereira, “and poverty is the main reason why the parents come to a compromise with the perpetrators’ families and employers know that they don’t have the financial capacity to fight with them.

In the West, the concept of having servants, or homeworkers has largely disappeared. Very few can afford to hire domestic help. Even the occasional services of a baby sitter strain many peoples’ finances. However, labour-saving devices in the home and convenience foods in the stores have reduced the domestic workload in the West considerably. Bangladesh is a poor country and it’s not possible for families to afford labour-saving devices but that gives them no right to exploit honest, hard-working homeworkers. Realistically speaking, things won’t change over night. In January 2006, on World Domestic Workers Day, 10,000 homeworkers walked on the streets of Mumbai demanding to be recognised under labour laws. In Bangladesh too there needs to be an uprising. People need to realise that homeworkers are employees just like they are employees at some organisation and they should be treated similarly subordinate yes, subservient definitely not.

The most frightening thing is that most of these homeworkers are children who grow up knowing that this is how life is meant to be. They accept that in some strange, unfair way they belong to a class that is very distinctly different from those they work for and they weren’t meant for anything better than verbal, physical and occasionally sexual abuse. Things like rest, play, education and ultimately happiness belong to a class of people who sleep in the very next room but couldn’t be further from their reach. And the class of people who enjoy these luxuries have grown up watching their parents and grandparents ‘disciplining’ the ‘servants’ of the house to give them a constant reminder to not cross the strictly defined class barrier. An ILO survey says there were 7.4 million working children between the ages of five and 14 in Bangladesh, many of whom work in homes, no one knows under what circumstances. So while the privileged few spend sleepless nights thinking about why their precious child didn’t come out first in class, these children will be lucky if they can spell their own names.


We too, Can

Gita Chakroborty, the deputy director of the Child Rights Unit at Ain o Shalish Kendro.

Gita Chakroborty, the Deputy Director of the Child Rights Unit at ASK, has been looking over Amrai Pari, comprising of six drop-in centres around Dhaka which caters solely to working children. At the drop-in centre two hours every afternoon, five days a week, homeworkers attend makeshift classrooms where they learn how to read and write. Chakroborty talks about how difficult it is to work with homeworkers because of the lack of any labour laws. “Our first intention was to improve the working conditions of homeworkers but it’s very difficult to gain entrance into a household because no one is willing to talk to us,” she says, “we are trying to ease them from the worst form of child labour, provide education to the homeworkers and change the attitude of the employers.

“There are a few employers who do actually think about their homeworkers, says Chakroborty, “and they follow good practices that we want to exemplify.” Amrai Pari is currently working with 500 employers who send their homeworkers to this drop-in centre, which also provides health care facilities for them. The employers also help the homeworkers stay in touch with their families.

“We did a survey of an area once of 200 households, from where 136 households had sent their children to work in Dhaka and other areas, but only nine of the parents knew the full address and location of the place they had sent them to,” says Chakroborty.

Unfortunately, not all employers realise that these children have a right to education and they are not doing them a favour by letting them learn. “Some of the employers put their homeworkers under extra pressure and say that if they don’t finish their work on time they won’t be able to go,” she adds.

All the homeworkers shown in this story are models.

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