Liberating domestic workers for equity and dignity

In addition to education, we must also prioritise the mental health and well-being of domestic workers. The nature of their work often exposes them to stressful and demanding conditions, which can take a toll on their mental health.

In the bustling urban landscapes of Bangladesh, where the rhythm of life beats relentlessly, lies a significant yet often overlooked segment of society: domestic workers. These individuals, who tirelessly dedicate themselves to maintaining the smooth functioning of households, are the unsung heroes of our communities. However, their contributions often go unnoticed, and their rights are frequently neglected. It is time for us, as a society and as a nation, to recognise the invaluable role of domestic workers and take proactive steps towards ensuring their empowerment and well-being.

The prevailing practice of employing domestic workers, often denoted as “maids” or “helpers,” at disproportionately low wages, irrespective of their job responsibilities, underscores systemic inequalities, perpetuates dependency, and fosters detrimental social norms. This practice not only highlights the stark disparities in our society but also reinforces a culture of exploitation and marginalisation. By normalising the notion of “low-class” or “menial” work, we inadvertently perpetuate a cycle of poverty and subjugation, wherein individuals are compelled to accept undignified employment simply to survive.

The existing norms surrounding the employment of domestic workers are part of a perceived “lower class” conflict with fundamental principles of morality, civility, and progress. It is imperative that we challenge and dismantle these outdated notions of hierarchy and status, and strive towards creating a society that values the inherent worth and contributions of every individual, regardless of the type of work they perform.

At the heart of this endeavour lies the need for comprehensive labour registration. Through this mechanism, the government can play a pivotal role in formalising the employment relationship between employers and domestic workers, thereby ensuring accountability and protection of the rights of both parties. Mandatory registration for employers and service workers will create a transparent framework, within which labour rights can be upheld and disputes resolved amicably. By formalising this relationship, we not only safeguard the rights of domestic workers, but also foster a culture of respect and dignity within our society.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we address the issue of child labour in urban areas. By promoting compulsory primary education up to Class 8 and aligning it with policies to prevent child labour, we can create a conducive environment for children to pursue their education without being compelled to engage in labour activities. Education is not only a fundamental right, but also a powerful tool for social and economic empowerment.

In addition to education, we must also prioritise the mental health and well-being of domestic workers. The nature of their work often exposes them to stressful and demanding conditions, which can take a toll on their mental health. Therefore, it is essential to implement measures for mental health rehabilitation and provide access to support services for those in need. A mentally healthy workforce is not only more productive, but also contributes to a more harmonious and compassionate society.

It is unacceptable that household workers are expected to be available at the beck and call of their employers 24/7, without regard for their own comfort or well-being. There must be clear, guided, and regulated principles governing the employment of domestic workers to ensure that their rights, dignity and well-being are protected. This includes establishing reasonable working hours, providing adequate rest periods, and ensuring fair compensation for their labour.

Moreover, we must ensure that domestic workers receive fair and just compensation for their labour. Standardising working hours and payment rates, and providing benefits such as sick leave, festival bonuses and health insurance are essential steps in this regard. Additionally, we must embrace digital payment systems to ensure transparency and efficiency in wage disbursement. By valuing the labour of domestic workers and providing them with adequate compensation and benefits, we affirm their dignity and worth as members of our society.

Furthermore, we must prioritise the provision of decent housing and clothing facilities for permanent domestic workers. These individuals often live in precarious conditions, lacking access to basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation. Additionally, it is crucial to invest in training and skills development programmes for domestic workers. By providing them with opportunities to enhance their skills and knowledge, we can empower them to pursue better job opportunities and improve their economic prospects. Training programmes in housekeeping, home management, hygiene, and cleaning will not only enhance the professionalism of domestic workers, but also ensure the quality and efficiency of their services.

We must also enforce codes of conduct for domestic workers and employers, and provide them with the necessary support and guidance to adhere to these standards. Codes of conduct should outline expectations regarding working hours, behaviour, labour rights, housing, and health facilities. Specialised training should be provided for specific tasks, such as childcare, to ensure the safety and well-being of those under their care.

Moreover, it is imperative to establish stringent measures to hold landlords and home employers accountable for any mistreatment or exploitation of domestic workers. In cases where a domestic worker is subjected to physical or verbal abuse, denied leave for extended periods, underpaid or unpaid, and deprived of adequate food and living conditions, swift and decisive actions must be taken against the perpetrators. Legal provisions should be enforced to ensure that such actions are met with appropriate punishment. By imposing consequences for such violations, we send a clear message that the rights and dignity of domestic workers will be upheld and protected at all costs.

Empowering domestic workers is more than a matter of social justice; it is an essential step towards building a more inclusive and sustainable future for Bangladesh. By formalising their employment relationships, investing in their education and training, and ensuring fair compensation and decent working conditions, we can create a society where every individual is valued and respected. It is time for us to recognise the invaluable contributions of domestic workers and take concrete steps to safeguard their rights and dignity.

Originally Published: The Daily Star, Feb 24, 2024

তড়িৎ প্রকৌশলী, বুয়েট। টেকসই উন্নয়নবিষয়ক লেখক। গ্রন্থকার: চতুর্থ শিল্পবিপ্লব ও বাংলাদেশ; বাংলাদেশ: অর্থনীতির ৫০ বছর; অপ্রতিরোধ্য উন্নয়নের অভাবিত কথামালা; বাংলাদেশের পানি, পরিবেশ ও বর্জ্য।

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