The recent report of an 11-year-old domestic help, Sharif, falling off a window shade of a high-rise building in his attempt to escape his employers who subjected him to brutal mental and physical torture, sheds light on an unacceptable social practice—employment of underage children in households as domestic help and their subsequent abuse at the hands of their employers. Sharif suffered severe head injuries and broke his left leg from the fall. Just within a month, another report of a minor domestic help taking a similar step to put an end to her suffering made the headlines. However, Riya Akhtar, 14, did not survive. Both the incidents raise a question as to where we actually stand in our efforts to stop violence against child domestic workers in Bangladesh.
When cases like these come to public attention, we are made aware of our feudal mindset regarding child labour. Child Domestic Workers (CDW) are a significant part of this culture. Just because the employers are providing food, shelter and money to the child workers, there is an implicit sense of supremacy and dominance that overshadows the more humane aspects of the employers who, as a result, end up violating fundamental rights of the child domestic workers.
With a sense of ownership, employers often abuse, torture and keep children in inhuman conditions, harming their physical and psychological development. These children are often not even allowed to meet their family and, most of the time, are deprived of healthcare when needed. They do not have any specified wage range, working hours and working conditions. In most of the cases, if they make any mistake, they are beaten and tortured by their employers, just like Sharif, who was brutally beaten by his employers. The children are often asked to carry out arduous, risky tasks (such as cutting vegetables with a sharp boti or carrying hot water for the bathroom) that are not appropriate for their age, and mistakes in carrying out their tasks may invite abuse and battery.
According to an estimate by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), 33 CDWs have suffered from various forms of violence in the last eight months across the country, whereas 31 child domestic workers were subjected to violence in 2018. A recent survey, conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in collaboration with the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), found that around 33 percent of all domestic workers in Bangladesh were children. However, the percentage may be higher as there is no proper documentation of child domestic workers in our country.
To address this issue, the government must create a database in relation to the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy (DWPWP) 2015 to register the workers and maintain information on them. With the database in hand, a monitoring cell can conduct house visitations and keep constant records of whether the employers are abiding by the terms and conditions of the policy.
One of the major concerning issues that is holding back proper documentation and registration is the age discrepancy in the government’s definition of children eligible for domestic work. The DWPW policy has set 12 years as a minimum age for the employment of domestic help, but it should be increased to 14 years because the amended Labour Act 2013 has fixed the minimum age to engage in work at 14 years, and in case of hazardous work, a worker must be 18 years. Then why is it not applicable for domestic workers?
Even after three years of formulating the DWPW policy, there is still scope for rectification. It is mainly because of the inefficiency and indifference of the authorities in monitoring, evaluating and reinforcing compliance with the domestic workers’ policy. Furthermore, the failure to allocate resources on time contributes in decelerating the pace of work.
The biggest despair for child domestic workers is probably the exclusion from the list of hazardous child labour by the government, which has determined 38 sectors to be harmful for children to work in, except household work as domestic workers. According to the ILO definition of hazardous work, ironing clothes, cutting vegetables with sharp appliances, boiling water, lifting heavy goods, etc. are considered to be harmful for children. Based on this definition, it is clear that child domestic workers are carrying out such tasks on a regular basis. The government should update the list and recognise domestic work as “labour” for the formal sector, so that those involved can be entitled to the benefits of basic labour rights which include reasonable working hours, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, clear information on the terms and conditions of employment, proper and specified payments, healthy working environment and so on.
Further, the Labour Act 2013 and the National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010 kept domestic workers under the informal sector. So, this sector remains outside all government regulations and monitoring mechanisms. As regards determining the type of harmful work and terms for setting the age limit, the government should ratify ILO Convention 138 for setting a standard minimum age for engagement in work and the ILO Convention 189 based on decent work for domestic workers. It is high time our archaic laws and policies were updated.
Employment opportunities should be created for parents of extremely poor and working children so that they (the children) are not forced into labour. It should be made mandatory to keep children under the age of 14 at school and any employer taking in a child below that age should be brought to book.
The abolition of violence against CDWs is a socio-legal issue. We need proper advocacy on healthy attitudes towards children from both the government and other organisations working on child rights, in order to change the existing social norms and to sensitise the society. We need stringent punishment, a child-friendly justice system and public awareness with proper action to put an end to this terrible practice of children being abused by their employers.
Joana Nomrata Mazumder works at The Daily Star.