Unheard voices of female domestic workers amidst corona
In developing and emerging countries, the informal sector supports the majority of poor men and women in their livelihoods. According to an ILO's published literature, as of April 2020, there are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide in the informal sector and in every 25 women workers at least one is a domestic worker. In developing countries, most of these women are employed as either own account or contributing family workers. Total number of the domestic workers, a highly women dominated segment in Bangladesh, is around 30 lakhs as estimated by the National Domestic Women Workers Union.
The pandemic crisis and lockdown measures have damaging effect on employment and consequently, thousands of women domestic helps and their families are in peril of extreme poverty who generally works on a contractual basis in the households of urban Bangladesh. The country's social distancing and health hazards compelled many households and apartments to discontinue their help workers and as a result many have been deprived from the salaries and other non-monetary benefits. A study claims that 57% of the domestic workers lost work and earning due to pandemic in Bangladesh. The sudden job loss and uncertainties have left women domestic workers at vulnerable livelihood state and often their informal nature of jobs does not qualify them for any direct government support.
Parenthetically, in Bangladesh, household work tends to be at the bottom of occupational hierarchy and generally undervalued. And female members are stereotypically assigned with the time-demanding responsibilities of domestic chores and care work as part of their gendered role inside the families. UN Women rightly observed, every day people collectively spend 16 billion hours on unpaid care work and domestic chores worldwide, and this work largely falls on women. Incidentally, taking the assistance of women domestic help to cope up with the household activities by female of different income level families is a common norm in Bangladesh. Precisely, women's time is not infinitely elastic therefore, many working and non-working women employ the house help more commonly known as 'chutta bhua', in Bangladesh.
To overcome from a cute poverty, every year a good number of females migrate from rural areas to urban settlements and end up either as regular or part time contractual domestic help workers in Bangladesh. Women domestic help workers have enabled many other working women, housewives and others with the support services such as; washing dishes, mopping, laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, child and dependents care of the family. With ingrained feminine skill it is easier for most needy women to engage in these occupations even without any prior training. Supports of domestic helps enabled many women to participate in formal economic activities and thus eventually increase overall participation of women in the workforce. Their participation in the labour market trickle-down impact empowers the individual, family, society and the country in aggregate.
These help workers are the informally employed vulnerable groups often without clear terms of employment and monetary rewards and generally face unregulated wages, long hours and often no weekly off. Paradoxically, they are excluded from scope of labour legislation and not entitled to basic protection that formal jobs usually provide such as social protection, health-care services and job security. In addition, domestic work, which entails both physical and emotional labour, has been ignored as productive work in Bangladesh. In contrast to the formal sector activities and decent category of jobs, these women workers cannot even avail loan facilities from banks for any emergency in their lives.
Working women are the part and parcel of economic and social engine of the economy, and access to decent paid work is a fundamental need for gender equality. As a matter of fact, women are the majority of informal workers in low income countries and ironically concentrated at the bottom of the informal 'hierarchy' and involved in undefined forms of work with less opportunity for progress. Unfortunately, women domestic help workers' skill and experiences are not economically valued or modestly recognized in today's modern civilization of developing countries and has been treated as 'dirty work' and left to be done by the marginalized sections of women.
In the pandemic crisis and lockdown period, many domestic workers, who are the prime income-earners and some, from female headed families have lost their jobs in mass and are currently struggling with increased financial hardships for existence. Within these lay off domestic help workers, with no access to social protections there are single mothers, pregnant women, and lactating mothers who are suffering even more.
There are limited initiatives undertaken for recognizing these works as part of formal economy or considering their activities as decent work. Guaranteeing these informal activities with minimum labour protections and recognizing their rights as workers are at the heart of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), and the accompanying Recommendation (No. 201) of ILO. On a positive note, within just over a year, Uruguay, The Philippines and Mauritius have ratified the Convention. The Domestic Workers Convention recognizes domestic work a "work" and persons engaged in this sort of work as "worker". It is inspiring that in some countries like South Africa, France and Spain, domestic workers received social security safety nets, and extended unemployment benefits for losing their jobs due to the lockdown .
Ordinance for the registration of the domestic workers in certain area of Bangladesh does not touch any regulatory aspect neither confer any rights to the domestic workers. Time has come to recognize their work and supporting them with some rights and benefits. A change is urgently needed for a shared realization amongst stakeholders and the leaders with the help of a wellbeing budget, which will focus on improving human, social and natural capital for sustainable growth without any discrimination on gender ground but on equality. We need long term investment to make solidarity package for the informal sector women workers for a sustainable social capital growth targeting women.
The writer is a Professor, ULAB School of Business, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB)