11 year old Aduri, a domestic worker, was rescued in 2013 by a police inspector from a dustbin in the cantonment area in a half-conscious state with signs of torture and severe injuries throughout her body. Earlier this year, a 12 year old domestic worker named Purnima was set on fire by her employer in the city of Rangpur and was then left abandoned at a warehouse to die. Violence against domestic workers go unabated and Aduri and Purnima are not the only victims of this inhumane practice. Hundreds of thousands of Aduris and Purnimas face this unbearable torment every day in Bangladesh in exchange for a meagre salary and little food on their plate.

According to a research conducted jointly by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and UNICEF back in 2007, the number of domestic workers in the country stood at 2 million, out of which 4,20,000 were children and 83 per cent of these workers were female. The figure is now estimated to be over 4 million. Despite the huge number of people employed in this sector, there is no specific law that deals with the rights of domestic workers.

Made to work in such a legal and policy vacuum, the domestic workers are thus subjected to various forms of inhumane torture and under no social safety net whatsoever. A survey conducted by the Domestic Workers’ Rights Network (DWRN) found that at least 567 domestic workers died from unnatural causes between 2001 and 2013. Another study titled ‘Study on the Situation of Domestic Child Workers in Dhaka City’ reports that about 17% of the child domestic workers were sexually abused in the capital while 83% underwent physical abuse by the employers’ families. These studies thus vividly reveal the dangerous condition in which a bulk of our population is working.

It is injudicious that Bangladesh is yet to enact any law to specifically attend to the needs of the domestic workers and protect their rights. The only law that remotely relates to the domestic workers is the Domestic Servants’ Registration Ordinance,1961 which obliges the domestic workers to register with the police, applicable only for 5 police stations of the metropolitan area of Dhaka. This Ordinance was enacted for the employers’ interests and not that of the domestic workers, to simplify the process of tracking them down in case they run off after committing any offence.

The Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006 which provides measures for almost all the labor law related issues, excludes domestic workers from its scope. Section 1(4) (NA) expressly states that this law shall not be applicable to domestic workers. This statute deals with workers in formal sectors such as industrial workers and ‘domestic works’ as per our legal system falls under the informal sector of employment.

Despite the absence of substantive laws, there are still ways in which the current prevailing laws can be utilized for ensuring the rights of the domestic workers. For example, if an agreement is made between the employer and worker before starting the work in matters generally relating to salary, vacations etc. The contract formed even if unwritten, informal and exhaustive is a service contract and will be enforceable under the Contract Act, 1872 provided that all the terms and conditions to the contract are as per the law. But, this Act will be of no help to the minors who constitute a vast portion of the domestic worker’s community. This is because Section 11 of the Act clearly states that a person only after attaining the age of majority is competent to contract, thus, rendering a minor’s agreement void and completely ineffective.

Another way in which domestic workers’ rights can be enforced is by application of Penal Code 1860. Many of the provisions of criminal law apply equally to the domestic workers like any other citizen of the country. A domestic worker can thus prosecute a perpetrator for acts like wrongful confinement, grievous injury, assault, culpable homicide, murder and various forms of sexual offences.

Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Act,2003 can be used to strengthen the position of domestic workers by punishing the perpetrators and preventing the domestic workers from harm. Moreover, the legal framework provided in National Child Labor Elimination Policy would be helpful in shielding the child labors from harshness of working environment and is crucial in paving the way for eradication of child labor in the country.

The Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (ILO Convention No. 189) was the first International Instrument to provide the term ‘domestic workers’ and give them the proper status of a worker and recognized some of their fundamental rights. The convention set certain labor standards for the workers such as right to safe and healthy working environment, fair terms of employment, rules of remuneration, 24 hours of consecutive rest weekly, social security including maternity benefits, minimum age for entry into domestic work etc. But frustratingly, Bangladesh is yet to ratify the ILO Convention No. 189.

The existing laws are not very helpful for the workers because in almost all cases they are not aware of their rights, but even if they are, they are too vulnerable to confront their wealthy and powerful employers in court. Moreover, the prosecution cost, the lawyer fees are too expensive for them for which they cannot seek the remedy of the Court.

With the agenda of saving the workers from this plight, a group of national trade unions and leading human rights NGOs in Bangladesh came together in 2006 and founded the Domestic Workers Rights Network (DWRN). Initially the Domestic Workers Code of Conduct was developed in 2007, which later evolved into the Draft Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2015, the first ever policy for domestic workers in the country. After relentless effort of DWRN the draft was finally approved in December 21, 2015 by the Bangladesh cabinet.

This policy includes identity cards, contract of employment, hours of working and rest, maternity leave, vocational training, healthcare support, compensation for accidents, and legal actions against physical or verbal abuse and sexual harassment. The policy intends to introduce minimum wages legislation by excluding expenditure of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare from the wages. Moreover, it calls for the formation of a central monitoring cell at the labor ministry and local monitoring cells at the Dhaka City Corporation and at the district and sub-district levels which might not be possible given the current resources of our country.  It also calls for the government to form a 24-hour help-line and create more public awareness. There are however some contradicting provisions, such as allowing child labor in domestic work but prohibiting it in other sectors of formal work and putting the responsibility of educating the child workers on the employers when ensuring primary education of every children is the duty of the State.

Despite some inconsistencies in the Draft Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy, 2010, it is the first step in recognizing the rights of domestic workers. The next step after the introduction of a policy is to enact a legislation which will make it enforceable by the law enforcement agencies and the Courts. It has already been six years since the policy was first drafted and so the Government must speed up the process of enacting the legislation, as by all standards it is already too late. However, the introduction of a new law will not make the problem magically disappear overnight. A change in people’s mindset is a must. A change that will enable people to treat them as human beings and as equals instead as mere slaves. This virtue of empathy can be instilled in the minds of children from a tender age through textbooks whereas mass media campaigns will go a long way in making people understand the gravity of the situation. Thus in order to combat this problem, people of the community will have to work together to build an inclusive environment for the domestic workers and eliminate this long-standing evil.