Female migrants
Female migrantsFile Photo

Amena Begum, 37, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. A part-time domestic worker in Dhaka, she now owes a moneylender Tk 30,000 (USD 350). Paying back the loan would have been difficult for her at normal times, but at this moment even paying the monthly interest of Tk 3,000 (USD 35) is not easy for her. Tk 3000 is half of her entire month’s earning when she has work.

Eight years ago, Amena came to Dhaka from Rangpur to look for work. Without any formal education or training, domestic work was her only option to earn a living in the city. Amena lives in a small rented place in Kamrangirchar and most of her employers live in the Azimpur Government Officers’ Colony in Dhaka.

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If Bangladesh enforces rights protective policies and ratifies ILO convention 189 to protect domestic workers in the country, then the country could bargain with labour recipient countries to respect rights and dignity of Bangladeshi domestic workers abroad
Trade union leader Abul Hossain

When lockdown was announced in Dhaka in March, Amena lost her only source of income overnight. “My income totally stopped during the lockdown. Despite repeated appeals, all my employers refused me entry to their houses,” she said. She had no money to pay her rent, nor to buy food and other essential items. Borrowing money at high interest was the only option left.

Alpona Akter, 40, from Dewanganj of Jamalpur, has been a domestic worker in Old Dhaka for more than six years. Like Amena, she has also been jobless for the last five months. She also took a loan of Tk 11,000 (USD 130) from a moneylender to pay her house rent and food. She also pays a monthly interest of Tk 100 for Tk 1000. “I have no national ID card, so I cannot take a loan from any financial institution in Dhaka. I had to borrow the money from a man from my village. I received the cash loan through mobile banking, BKash,’ she said.

In separate interviews, women domestic workers said that they have faced various kinds of problems including mental stress and social stigma during the lockdown period. On one hand, there was no work, on the other, no savings to fall back on. Many women said that they cut down on intake of food during the lockdown.

The domestic workers said that they have not received any support from the government nor from any charitable organisations in Dhaka during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers and labour rights organisations say that there is no specific data on domestic workers employed in Dhaka and across the country. An ILO study report of 2006, estimates that there are approximately 4 million domestic workers currently employed in Bangladesh.

According to the National Domestic Women Workers Union, Bangladesh, about 1.2 million part-time domestic workers have lost jobs since March 2020 due to the lockdown imposed to address the pandemic.

The National Domestic Women Workers Union, Bangladesh (NDWWU) is an affiliated organisation of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF). Amena Begum, the president of NDWWU, said that part-time domestic workers have faced many difficulties over the last six months. Many have lost jobs and all their income. “The households where they had served for years did not allow them to enter the house fearing spread of coronavirus,” she said.

Describing the destitute condition of the domestic workers, the NDWWU president also said that thousands of domestic workers have already fallen into high interest debts.

Referring to a recent study, NDWWU founder and adviser Abul Hossain said that there are 2.2 million to 2.5 million domestic workers in the country and 60 per cent of them (1.5 million) are live-out (those who work for a few hours in a household and may work in several houses) and 40 per cent are live-in (full time and those who live in the house of the employers). About 80 per cent of the live-out domestic workers, (1.2 million) have lost their jobs due to lockdown, said Abul Hossain who is also the Dhaka city unit president of Bangladesh Workers' Party.

He said that most jobless women domestic workers have not received any support from the government as yet. As most domestic workers have come from the villages to Dhaka and did not have any ID cards, they were not eligible for the relief support, Mr. Hossain pointed out.

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When asked for comment, additional secretary of the labour and employment ministry Dr Md Rezaul Haque said that the number of jobless domestic workers mentioned by the NDWWU may not represent the real figure as there is no data on the domestic workers in Bangladesh.

He, however, admitted that during the lockdown live-out domestic workers were not allowed to enter residences of employers but he claimed that many employers have paid wages to the workers during the lockdown.

Asked about debts, Rezaul Haque, who is chief of the ministry’s labour wing, said that due to decline of family income of the workers, many of them might have taken the loans to bear the daily expenditures.

Asked about policy implementation, the senior official said that his ministry has been holding meetings with various stakeholders to turn the Domestic Workers’ Protection and Welfare Policy into a law.

Although there is no minimum standard salary for domestic workers, one-fifth live-in and one-fourth live-out DWs (live-in 19.6% and live-out 24.2%) receive Tk 5,600 or more as monthly wage, according to a study on Decent Work Deficits in Domestic Work in Bangladesh commissioned by International Labour Organization (ILO) country office in Dhaka and carried out by an expert team of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in February 2019.

When contacted, research team leader and Dhaka University’s International Relations Professor Dr ASM Ali Ashraf said that COVID-19 has badly affected people from all walks of life including those employed in the informal sector.

He said that “Presently there are more than 2 million domestic workers in Bangladesh. Most of them are women serving as live-out DWs and girl children (below the age of 18) serving as live-in DWs.”

The live-out DWs have been worst affected as a majority of them became unemployed with little or no income opportunity for the past six months, said Dr Ali Ashraf.

He noted that DWs do not enjoy any insurance coverage, nor do they have any effective social protection mechanism. “Either a peer support system or an informal support from generous employers may attend to the needs of a small group of unemployed live-out DWs but there is no data on the vulnerability of DWs.”

Bangladesh needs to ratify ILO C189 to provide for a fair and well-governed system of domestic work employment. Decent work in domestic work is a distant reality in Bangladesh. Ratification of the C189, coupled with public awareness, and frequent media campaign may pave the road to ensure decent work for DWs.

Five years back, the Bangladesh government adopted a policy for protection and welfare of domestic workers including legal assistance for them. Under that policy, the domestic workers were supposed to be brought under a registration process. But there has been no implementation of the policy as yet.

Trade union leader Abul Hossain blamed the government and the concerned ministry of labour and employment for not taking steps to enforce the Domestic Help Protection and Welfare Policy-2015.

“If Bangladesh enforces rights protective policies and ratifies ILO convention 189 to protect domestic workers in the country, then the country could bargain with labour recipient countries to respect rights and dignity of Bangladeshi domestic workers abroad,” he said.

The ILO study found that decent work deficit in domestic work has been a longstanding problem in Bangladesh that required attention from the government, private sector, and the civil society.

Although the government of Bangladesh adopted Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy in 2015, domestic workers in the country remain outside the purview of the Labour Act 2013 (MoLE 2015). There are limited opportunities for social dialogue as under the current labour law of Bangladesh, the DWs cannot be members of the trade union.

The ILO study recommends promoting decent work conditions for domestic workers in Bangladesh, eliminating children’s participation in domestic work profession, extending educational opportunities for child DWs and skills training for the young women, establishing DW welfare offices at the district level and bringing good governance in the recruitment process.

Prof Dr Ali Ashraf recommends full implementation of the 2015 Domestic Workers’ Protection and Welfare Policy, amending the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) to include domestic work under the coverage of Bangladesh labour law and enhancing people’s knowledge base about the importance of decent work in domestic work.

He also recommends documenting best practices and disseminating them among the employers and workers, organising recreational opportunities for the domestic workers and providing DWs a meaningful opportunity to participate in a social dialogue (with employers, unions, and government delegates).

Although there was no specific government response for the domestic workers, officials in the labour ministry said that there was a welfare fund that could help the workers if they are injured or killed in workplace accidents or other disasters.

In March 2020, Bangladesh government had announced a Tk 5,000 crore (Approximately USD 0.59 billion) stimulus package for the export-oriented industries – mostly to pay the salaries and wages of the workers and employees in the sector. In April 2020, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina further announced Tk 72,500 Cr (approximately USD 8.47 billion) stimulus package for recovery of the national economy amid pandemic, according to media reports. The package included increasing public expenditure, increasing fiscal packages, and expanding social security programmes for citizens.

Hopefully, some of the benefits of the programmes will reach the domestic workers too.

Md Owasim Uddin Bhuyan is a freelance journalist

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