Pushed by poverty

Sadiqur Rahman reflects on the sufferings faced by some child domestic workers, as a government policy to ensure their protection and welfare is yet to be approved

Most Bangladeshis were shocked to hear about the heinous torture of a minor domestic worker named Mahfuza Akhter Happy by national cricketer Shahadat Hossain and his wife Jesmine Jahan Nrittya after the victims was rescued by locals and police on September 6 this year.
Happy had been working as a domestic help for the couple for several months. Pallabi police rescued the girl from Kalshi area of the city and later handed her to Mirpur police who admitted her to Dhaka Medical Hospital. After examining the victim, doctors found Happy’s left foot fractured and she had blood clots around the eyes and bruises on her hands and back. The accused couple, who were absconding since a case was filed against them, were later nabbed by the police.
Protests against Shahadat and his wife eventually spilled over to the streets from social media and the incident also embarrassed the Bangladesh Cricket Board, which banned the cricketer temporarily from all forms of cricket until the charges against the duo are settled. The national pacer played 38 Tests and 51 one-day internationals for Bangladesh.
Concerned citizens and right activists are frustrated with the Shahadat and his wife’s treatment of the minor as common people tend to follow the national icons in every step of their lives. The incident also revealed that education and social position cannot refrain ill-motivated people from committing subhuman and unsocial activities.
It also reminded the society that discrimination and rights violation against child workers are still unchecked in the country amid talks of ‘child development’.
According to the Domestic Workers Rights Network (DWRN) estimates, there were allegations against 20 domestic workers’ deaths and 26 others were injured by physical torture till September this year.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), a nation-wide child rights network, estimated 78 criminal offences against domestic child workers through torture during 2014 and 2015 (till October). Among them, 12 were died after torture, 40 were wounded by torture, 18 were harassed sexually and eight were abnormal deaths.  The list was made from newspaper reports.
Prominent labour organiser, Abul Hossain, also advisor to the National Domestic Women Workers Union and organiser to DWRN, feels that the number of crimes against domestic child workers is higher than the numbers reported as most underprivileged children work inside walls and have little or no option to share their sorrows with outsiders.
Domestic child labour is very common in our country as families from urban middle to higher earning classes, and sometimes even the rural solvent families, employ children under food for work basis or in some cases along with very low monthly wages.
The domestic child workers have no legal protection under the existing labour laws. As such, they are deprived of minimum rights due to cheap accessibility of their services.
A draft paper on the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy 2010 states that domestic child workers’ flow are still continuing from some rural poverty pockets (impoverished areas in the country) to urban areas, although some government subsidies including academic scholarship and free education for female students have helped to discourage the tendency.
According to rights activists, there is a high demand of minor girls. A BSAF study conducted in Dhaka during 2010 revealed that 88 per cent of the domestic child workers were girls. Most of them were aged between 12-18 years (32 per cent). The study also found that 95 per cent of them face verbal abuse, 73 per cent face physical torture and 17 per cent face sexual harassment.
According to DWRN and BSAF, most of the domestic child workers are not allowed to go outside, there is little or no scope for education and recreation, health care, standard wage and others from the households they are working at. Often the children have to face abusive language, mental torment and threat of losing their job.
Poverty, broadly, social and economic insecurity often forces parents to send their kids to very non-familiar environment far from their home where they would be bound to serve without getting minimum civic facilities. Environmental disaster, limited social security net, discriminatory distribution of wealth, parent’s ailment and lack of income generating knowledge and support are among the push factors of poverty-derived child labour. The BSAF study of 2010 found that 90 per cent of the domestic child workers are engaged in such work due to poverty.
Right activists think that besides poverty related causes, family feud, discriminatory social inclusion, weak legal and policy support, reluctant monitoring system, lack of awareness and high demand of cheap labour are increasing domestic child labour.
However, following outcries by the concerned citizen and right activists, the government initiated drafting the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy in 2010 to protect the rights of these innocent children. Unfortunately, the drafted policy still remains unapproved by the government.
The draft policy bounds employers with some responsibilities including appointing workers not aged below 14, providing appointment letters and identity cards, pay standard monthly wage and festival bonus, safe and hygienic accommodation and food, education, healthcare and others.
Labour leader Abul Hossain, who is among the instigators of the policy formulation, informs New Age Xtra that policy approval has not been carried out due to some unresolved issues like mandatory registration for domestic workers, which the government side deems unnecessary.  ‘However, after a series of discussion, government has initiated approval of the policy within very short time. I hope, the cabinet will approve the policy by this December,’ Hossain says.
Mira Mitra, a former UNICEF official and an experienced child rights consultant, thinks that besides policy implementation, citizen’s participation to uphold child rights is needed. She tells New Age Xtra, ‘Family should not employ domestic workers aged below 14. Meanwhile, parents need to understand that if they educate their kids amid economic and social hardship, they would be well supported in future by their income generating and confident children.’
Rights activists also demand ratification of the Convention number 189 for decent work for domestic workers, adopted in 2011 by the International Labour Conference. Bangladesh is yet to ratify the treaty.