A large number of women domestic employees jobless and with debt

21 Sep 2020 10:33 AM
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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). Repaying the loan could have been difficult for her at normal times, but currently even paying the monthly interest of Tk 3,000 (USD 35) isn't possible for her. Tk 3000 is half of her entire month’s earning when she's work.

Eight years back, Amena found Dhaka from Rangpur to search for work. Without the formal education or training, domestic work was her only choice to earn a moving into the city. Amena lives in a tiny rented place in Kamrangirchar and most of her employers are in the Azimpur Government Officers’ Colony in Dhaka.

When lockdown was announced in Dhaka in March, Amena lost her only source of income overnight. “My income totally stopped through 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 a lot more than six years. Like Amena, she has also been jobless going back five months. She also took financing 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, therefore i cannot have a loan from any lender in Dhaka. I had to borrow the amount of money from a guy from my village. I received the cash loan through mobile banking, BKash,’ she said.

In separate interviews, women domestic personnel said that they have faced various varieties of problems including mental stress and social stigma during the lockdown period. Similarly, there is no work, on the other, no savings to fall back on. Many women said that they lessen intake of food through the lockdown.

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

Researchers and labour rights organisations say that there is absolutely no specific data on domestic employees used in Dhaka and in the united states. An ILO study report of 2006, estimates that there are approximately 4 million domestic personnel currently used in Bangladesh.

Based on the National Domestic Women Workers Union, Bangladesh, about 1.2 million part-time domestic employees have lost jobs since March 2020 as a result of lockdown imposed to handle the pandemic.

The National Domestic Women Workers Union, Bangladesh (NDWWU) can be an affiliated organisation of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF). Amena Begum, the president of NDWWU, said that part-time domestic staff have faced many difficulties during the last half a year. Many have lost jobs and almost all their income. “The households where they had served for years did not allow them to enter the home 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 previously fallen into high interest debts.

Referring to a recent study, NDWWU founder and adviser Abul Hossain said that we now have 2.2 million to 2.5 million domestic personnel in the country and 60 % of these (1.5 million) are live-out (those who work for a few hours in a household and may work in a number of houses) and 40 per cent are live-in (regular and those who are in the house of the employers). About 80 % of the live-out domestic workers, (1.2 million) have lost their jobs due to lockdown, said Abul Hossain who's 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. Because so many domestic workers have come from the villages to Dhaka and didn't have any ID cards, they were not qualified to receive the relief support, Mr. Hossain described.

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

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

Asked about debts, Rezaul Haque, who's chief of the ministry’s labour wing, said that because of decline of family income of the workers, most of them may 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 right into a law.

Although there is absolutely no minimum standard earnings 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 report 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 damaged persons from all walks of life including those employed in the informal sector.

He said that “Presently there are more than 2 million domestic personnel in Bangladesh. A lot 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 most them became unemployed with little if any income opportunity for days gone by 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 a casual support from generous employers may focus on the needs of a tiny band of unemployed live-out DWs but there is absolutely no data on the vulnerability of DWs.”

Bangladesh must ratify ILO C189 to supply 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, in conjunction with public awareness, and frequent media campaign may pave the street to make sure 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 said to be brought under a registration process. But there's been no implementation of the policy up to now.

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 your country could bargain with labour recipient countries to respect rights and dignity of Bangladeshi domestic personnel abroad,” he said.

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

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 add domestic work beneath the coverage of Bangladesh labour law and improving people’s knowledge base about the value of decent work in domestic work.

He also recommends documenting guidelines and disseminating them among the employers and workers, organising recreational opportunities for the domestic staff and providing DWs a meaningful opportunity to take part 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 is a welfare fund that may help the workers if they're 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 associated with the programmes will reach the domestic workers too.