Warning: This post discusses sexual violence.
By Suaida Firoze
Suaida Firoze is a senior at Clark University studying Economics and Business Management.
As of 2014, the number of domestic workers in Bangladesh has soared to approximately 2 million. Many of these workers are women and children.  In Bangladesh, it is quite common for middle-class households to include servants who perform all of the household chores, which include cooking, cleaning, shopping, hand washing laundry, and answering every demand of the homeowner.
Growing up in Bangladesh, my family was privileged enough to have a servant to help with domestic work. With two working parents, my siblings and I would agree that our servants were far more than their title implies We considered them a part of the family, and so always treated them fairly. However, this sentiment is absent within most households in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. The master-servant relationship, a modern-day manifestation of the master-slave relationship, is deeply ingrained in the history and culture of many South Asian regions. The strict class system that divides individuals based on their monthly income perpetuates the sense of omnipotence so many of these employers feel in relation to their servants.
According to a presentation by the International Trade Union Confederation, during the first decade of the 21st century approximately three hundred and ninety-eight domestic workers were found dead due to torture. Two hundred and ninety-nine more were wounded by torture, and one hundred were sexually harassed by their employers.  In addition, the “Study on the Situation of Domestic Child Workers in Dhaka City”, based on the stories of eight-hundred and forty-nine child domestic workers from major neighborhoods in Dhaka, found that 17% of these children had been sexually abused and 83% of them had been physically abused by members of the household the worked in. 
It is ironic that Bangladesh, a country known to be addressing its women’s rights issues more so than other South Asian countries, has accepted and embraced this slavery and abuse of mostly women for so long. Domestic workers are denied fair wages, and in many cases are not paid wages at all, because domestic workers were excluded from the Bangladesh Labor Act of 2006 and 2013. The one piece of legislation that offers these workers some form of protection, the Domestic Servants’ Registration Ordinance of 1961, requires workers to self-register at their local police station.  However, this does not ensure their labor rights, nor does it address any unjust working conditions endured by these workers. Due to the lack of procedure for monitoring the treatment of domestic workers, many cases of violence go unnoticed. Unlike most other formal employment positions, domestic workers do not have unions representing them, so they have no power to change their lot. This entrapment into such horrendous domestic working conditions is made more inevitable and permanent by the fact that many families send their children to do this work out of financial necessity and desperation. 
Even though the often-negligible salary that these workers receive is not computed into the GDP of Bangladesh, the country’s economy would suffer greatly if individuals were not able to employ workers in their homes. Much of the time these workers come to the capital from surrounding villages in Bangladesh because there is no room in their own homes and their family lacks the ability to feed them. Therefore, many of these workers have to remain in their positions in order for themselves and their families to survive. Due to the lack of employment opportunities for unskilled workers in Bangladesh, taking away these domestic positions entirely would do more harm than good for those living in poverty.
Even though no national law exists to protect these workers, perpetrators of violence against their servants can be tried under the existing international human rights laws, penal codes, and international conventions, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) of 1989 and the ILO conventions on forced labour.  However, earlier this year experts told the Dhaka Tribune, the leading newspaper in Bangladesh, that “unless provisions of international conventions ratified by Bangladesh are incorporated in a domestic law, such conventions have no practical utility,” emphasizing the need and urgency for Bangladesh to adopt its own policy for the protection of domestic workers’ rights.
Finally, in 2010 after much lobbying, the nonprofits and community organizations succeeded in inspiring the creation of a draft of such legislation called the “ Domestic Worker Protection and Social Welfare,” which legally recognized domestic servants, and officially accorded them legal rights. After heavy speculation and intense debate during the inter-ministerial process and at the Tripartite Consultative Council meetings, the final “Draft Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2014” came into existence. 
Some of the foremost rights in the new draft include fair wages, reasonable working hours, minimum employment age, fixed working days, maternity leaves, health support, decent working conditions and, most importantly, the right to take legal action against any physical, verbal or sexual abuse. While this new policy holds the key to providing justice and security to domestic workers, human rights activists are expressing great disappointment about the low priority given to this policy since its inception. 
The current draft has a long way to go before becoming a nationally accepted and implemented policy. While there are many supporters of this policy and many that are trying to increase public awareness of these issues, there still remain many employers who feel that giving these rights to the informal sector would increase the potential for riots and unruly behavior. This issue still remains a low priority for the Bangladeshi government despite the continually increasing abuse against domestic workers. As a result of the rising statistics surrounding the abuse of servants, we can expect to see changes in the prioritization of this policy in the near future as more academics, researchers, and policy-makers come on board to support its official implementation. Until that time, it is a work-in-progress that provides hope for a better and safer Bangladesh, while simultaneously serving as a reminder of how far much of the world still must to go to protect its workers from abuses.
 Karim, Mohosinul. "Initiative Made for Legal Protection of Domestic Workers." Dhaka Tribune. February 14, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2015.
 "Presentation of Domestic Workers' Rights Network (DWRN) in Bangladesh." International Trade Union Confederation. October 23, 2012. Accessed September 23, 2015.
 Islam, Udisa. "No Legal Protection for Domestic Workers, Unnatural Death High." October 26, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2015.
 Ashraf, ASM. "Domestic Workers Need the Law on Their Side." Industrial Relations Net| Asia Pacific Industrial Relations Network. August 2, 2015. Accessed September 23, 2015.
 "Presentation of Domestic Workers' Rights Network (DWRN) in Bangladesh."
 "Domestic Workers Need the Law on Their Side."
Photo Credit: Flickr User Michaël Garrigues
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