Salma, a young domestic worker in Bangladesh, used to work in five houses and earn 7,000 BDT (82.53 USD) per month. With this income, she managed to take care of her family but because of the pandemic, she got fired from two houses and her income dropped to 3,000 BDT (35.40 USD) per month, less than half of what she used to earn.
Similarly, the majority of young domestic workers are facing the same kind of difficulties to meet their basic needs from their income. The lack of job security means they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The constraining of their movement by family members and access to health care are other effects of the pandemic.
Restriction of movement
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, health concerns stopped homeowners from allowing domestic workers in their houses. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the government promoted social and physical distancing measures, to slow the spread of disease by stopping chains of transmission of Covid-19 and preventing new ones from appearing.
In Bangladesh, a lockdown was imposed from the end of March 2020 for over two months. It had a huge impact on the people living below the poverty line. We interviewed a few young domestic workers as part of the ‘Youth Futures’ research project, whose lives were significantly impacted during lockdown, and who lost their jobs and income.
As a consequence of Covid situation and unemployment, they have no other choice but to return to their hometown. Although they want to work and have a living, the employers are restricted to a certain number of employees in the premises. There is also the risk of directly being exposed to coronavirus.
There are 10.5 million people employed as domestic workers in Bangladesh. Among them around 90% are female. Domestic work, being an informal employment, has no guarantee of remuneration or fixed working hours. Since there are no laws for domestic workers, employers can terminate their jobs without any notice or compensation. Most of them are also not aware of their own rights as they have little to no education.
Sudden job losses were already common, and the pandemic situation made it worse for them. Fear of community transmission as well as economic devastation led the Bangladeshi families to let domestic workers go or give out furlough payments during lockdown, resulting in no income for some, no food to fill their stomachs.
At best, the reduction of remuneration makes it difficult to buy food and maintain livelihoods at a time for these young domestic workers. At worst, they have no shelter and are forced to beg.
Their life came down to a misery where they felt nothing but helpless. Getting another job is now harder than ever, as the situation has become worse on both sides. Live-in domestic workers may not face the same situation as much as the part-time domestic workers did, but they all faced this catastrophe.
The option of switching jobs is not always available for live-in domestic workers, even after being pressurised with workload, abusive behavior and to some extent sexual harassment. As most of the families are working from home, they have become more dependent on their live-in domestic workers. Therefore, they aren’t getting any rest which is impacting directly on their mental and physical health.
Abuse and exploitation
In the Covid-19 context, the existing scenario of sexual harassment was exacerbated, especially for the young domestic workers. Those who lost their jobs became more vulnerable in their own families.
The life of a domestic worker was never an easy one, before or after the pandemic arose. Household crises arise more often than usual. Frustration about financial instability results in inappropriate domestic behavior leading to violence and sexual harassment.
In the interviews we conducted with few domestic workers, one of them said, “During pandemic most of the male members were staying at home. Some of them tend to lurk around while we are doing our chores, also asking for sexual favors.”
Unforeseen reality of job insecurity
Drishty, a young domestic worker, would like to switch her job to a formal sector for financial stability. Like her, the majority of the young domestic workers of Bangladesh are facing difficulties to sustain their basic elements of human rights. As the nation grappled with the spread of Covid-19, all her dreams of pursuing a better economic living standard were shattered.
Domestic workers in our country live in low-income communities, where houses are very congested. The people living there are not very aware about their safety and health concerns (not using masks, sanitizers, washing hands often, maintaining social distancing). Because of this, employers of domestic workers started to cut them off from their jobs citing health concerns.
We learned about several stories where young domestic workers were fired without notice and faced a huge economic loss. Absence of domestic workers’ organizations, proper monitoring and protection systems made their situation more vulnerable in pandemic. Words may fail but the magnitude of the issue will not.
These are unprecedented days. It is not surprising that the life of a domestic worker is not an easy one, with or without a hovering pandemic. They are facing the wrath of Covid-19 in various ways but the financial crisis is tremendous.
The government of Bangladesh is trying to keep the situation under control by taking proper precautions, but at the same time it needs to ensure that economic as well as social factors affecting the young domestic worker’s lives are secured.
The domestic workers already have no opportunity to officially speak out though there is an organization called “Domestic Workers Rights Network (DWRN)” formed in 2006. Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) is the secretariat of the network.
DWRN has been advocating to take positive measures with a view to developing ILO instruments on decent work for domestic workers to provide appropriate guidance to constituents on policy and practice in the area of informal work sector; (i) To ensure penalty of torturers of domestic workers, (ii) To ensure free legal support to the victim domestic workers by the govt. and monitoring the progress of the cases.
We have to take strong advocacy initiatives and arrange awareness campaigns both at community and national level during and after Covid-19. With the help of government officials, NGOs and INGOs, we can initiate workshops on start-ups for women’s economic empowerment. In addition, we need to provide free health care facilities, doctors, frontline health workers, medical clinics can do voluntary work.
Although there’s a policy indicating some major issues of concern of domestic workers, its efficacy is merely in black and white. To acknowledge them and their contributions, a law should be formed to ensure their recruitment, job security, working hours and procedure of fixation of wages.
A safe working environment is expected, but also essential for young women to be encouraged in such a way that they feel empowered and can work towards their desired goal.
Khondokar Zahra Afreen Latika, Jyoti Barua, Meem Maysha Manzur, Amir Khan Shraboan, Mir Tamjidul Islam are the youth researchers working in Bangladesh on the IDS-led Gender Priced Precarity Project. They are based at the Sobujer Ovijan Foundation.