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Bangladesh: Domestic workers need the law on their side

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by ASM Ali Ashraf published Aug 02, 2015 12:00 AM
Contributors: ASM Ali Ashraf
ASM Ali Ashraf
More than 2 million poor women and children are employed as domestic workers in Bangladesh. It is a harsh reality that they operate in a legal and policy vacuum, a result of the national labour laws of 2006 and 2013, both of which exclude domestic workers from legal coverage.

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In the absence of any formal recognition as labourers, domestic workers suffer from various types of exploitation, such as longer working hours, and verbal and physical abuse.

More than 2 million poor women and children are employed as domestic workers in Bangladesh. It is a harsh reality that they operate in a legal and policy vacuum, a result of the national labour laws of 2006 and 2013, both of which exclude domestic workers from legal coverage.

The only piece of legislation that comes closer to governing domestic workers is the Domestic Servants’ Registration Ordinance 1961. Although the 1961 ordinance requires self-registration of domestic workers with local police stations in Dhaka, it fails to offer any legal redress against abuse and harsh work conditions.

The problem of a legal vacuum is enormous. In the absence of any formal recognition, domestic workers suffer from various types of exploitation, such as longer working hours, and verbal and physical abuse. In addition, the concept of a formal contract or negotiated wage is almost alien when it comes to employing domestic workers. Interestingly, Bangladesh is not an exception in this regard. A 2013 study conducted by ILO finds that that only 10% of domestic workers in the world receive protection from general labour laws, while another 30% are excluded from the scope of any national labour laws.

There are at least two possible ways to extend legal coverage to domestic workers in Bangladesh: The first is relying on existing penal codes, human rights laws, and international conventions. The second would be getting the domestic workers policy process on right track. The second deserves more attention.

The existing code of criminal procedures can be employed to prosecute violence against domestic workers. In addition, various national instruments, such as the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Act 2003 and National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010, can provide a legal framework to protect the rights of women and children, including those employed as domestic workers. In addition, Bangladesh is party to numerous international laws, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) 1989, and ILO conventions on forced labour, minimum age (industry), abolition of forced labour, and worst forms of child labour.

One problem relates to a weak inspection and monitoring system in implementing the national laws. A second challenge comes from the lack of an accurate birth registration system, which makes it difficult to implement the legal provisions governing their rights.

To what extent are the provisions of international instruments applicable for Bangladesh? Expert opinions suggest that, unless provisions of international conventions ratified by Bangladesh are incorporated in a domestic law, such conventions have no practical utility. Having observed the limits of existing national and international laws, none of which focuses exclusively on domestic workers, it is high time we recognised the need for a national policy on domestic workers. Interestingly, the idea of such a policy has been floating in the Ministry of Labour and Employment since 2007, albeit with limited success.

In 2006, a group of national trade unions and leading human rights NGOs in Bangladesh established the Domestic Workers Rights Network as a an advocacy coalition to push the domestic workers agenda. After initial consultation among civil society groups, trade unions, and the government, a draft of Domestic Workers Code of Conduct was developed in 2007, which was later evolved into a Draft Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2010.

Between 2010 and 2014, the draft policy was debated at the inter-ministerial process, and at the Tripartite Consultative Council meetings. Such a lengthy and formal policy process has produced another fine-tuned version of a draft policy, widely known to be the Draft Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2014.

Among the 16 provisions in the 2014 draft policy, the most important ones focus on fair wage, minimum age, decent working conditions, and fixed working hours. The draft policy also includes identity cards, contract of employment, maternity leave, vocational training, healthcare support, compensation for accidents, and legal actions against physical or verbal abuse and sexual harassment. It suggests the formation of a central monitoring cell at the labour ministry and local monitoring cells at the Dhaka city corporation and at the district and sub-district levels. It also calls for the government to form a 24-hour help-line and create more public awareness.

Although most senior government officials have openly supported the need for a national policy on domestic workers, the human rights community and trade union activists have expressed their disappointment at the delay in formulating such a policy. Three factors appear to have caused this delay in policy formulation: (a) Low priority given to domestic workers policy; (b) uneven commitment by the advocacy coalition members; and (c) scepticism towards an intrusive domestic workers policy.

First of all, the labour ministry appears to be over-burdened with several “high priority” commitments, such as issuing labour act implementation rules, and promoting decent work conditions in RMG. As a result, it has little time and energy to invest in a “low priority” policy area concerning domestic workers.

Second, members of the Domestic Workers Rights Network (DWRN) appear to have varying levels of commitment to push the policy agenda. While some of them are motivated by a passion for promoting labour rights, others do not show such enthusiasm due to a lack of international donor support. In the absence of any sustained and co-ordinated pressures from the NGOs and civil society, the government is unlikely to give domestic workers a top priority.

A third challenge comes from the employers’ representatives, who fear that a liberal domestic workers policy would open the floodgates for disruptive trade unionism in this informal sector, which would not only hurt the career prospect of poor domestic workers but also alienate the private citizens employing such workers. In addition, several provisions in the 2014 draft policy, especially on negotiated wage, minimum age requirement, and registration of domestic workers are simply unrealistic in the current socio-economic context of Bangladesh.

What can be done to get the policy process on the right track? First, the labour ministry needs to own the Draft Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy, and provide strategic leadership to convert the “draft” to an “official” policy. Second, the DWRN members need to promote awareness among the general population, and revisit some of the provisions that alert the employers’ representatives. Finally, there is a need to draw policy lessons from other countries which have not only enacted national laws on domestic workers, but also ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention 2011. Academics need to come forward to generate such policy lessons.

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