– Rani Akter, mother of five, generally works as a domestic helper in the Zikatola region of Dhaka. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Bangladesh last March, her employers asked her not to come to their homes for fear of being infected.
“I lost my job in three houses one after another, which became a nightmare for me. My wealthy employers didn’t allow me to enter their home because they thought I might be a carrier of the invisible virus, ”Akter told IPS.
Akter’s husband has also lost his job due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the family has been going through tough times.
“We had nowhere to go. We once had a house in Mehendiganj in the coastal Barishal district, but bank erosion engulfed our house eight years ago. That’s why we were forced to stay in the city, ”she said.
Akter started knocking on doors, looking – unsuccessfully – for work.
“We did not find government assistance or cash assistance. But we had to survive and that is why at the beginning we paid the family expenses from our savings. And when the savings were spent, we started borrowing from loved ones. We have already borrowed 40,000 Tk ($ 471). We take 5,000 to 6,000 Tk ($ 58 to $ 70) in loans per month from neighbors and relatives to meet our demand for food and pay the rent, ”Akter said.
She said her family was getting into debt and didn’t know when their suffering would end.
Shahana Akter (20), a single mother who works as a domestic helper in the town of Netrakona, also lost her job when the pandemic began. But she was luckier than most.
“When I lost my job, I thought about how my five year old son and I were going to survive. I had no savings. But I was lucky to have a new job after two months in lockdown, ”Shahana Akter told IPS.
Millions of domestic workers lost their jobs due to COVID-19
There are no official data on the number of domestic workers in Bangladesh. But according to Rezaul Haque, Additional Secretary (Labor Wing) at the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor and Employment, around 95 percent of domestic helpers are women and girls.
A 2006 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that Bangladesh had four million domestic workers in a country of 163 million people.
While a recent study by the National Domestic Women Workers Union (NDWWU) found that there are around 2.2-2.5 million domestic workers, of which around 60% or 1.5 million were homeworkers. , the remaining 40% living at their employer’s home.
According to NDWWU Secretary General Murshida Akter Nahar, when the coronavirus outbreak started here in March 2020, many domestic workers lost their jobs without notice and without receiving the pay they were due.
It is estimated that around 1.2 million homeworkers have lost their jobs since March 2020.
“And many domestic helpers were forced to leave their employers’ homes, so they had to lead miserable lives during last year’s lockdown. They had no shelter to live on and no food to eat in Dhaka City. This is why many of them were forced to leave the city, ”she told IPS.
After the COVID-19 infection rate reduced, many domestic workers returned to the city, hoping to be re-employed by their former employers. But most have not found their jobs.
Nahar said domestic helpers who were able to find jobs lost their jobs when the coronavirus situation started to deteriorate again in March. “But they haven’t received enough support from the government.”
She said that many domestic workers have started begging, which has led to a rapid increase in the number of beggars on the streets of the city.
Mahmuda Begum (40) lives in a small rented house in the Zikatola neighborhood and has also worked in the neighborhood as a domestic helper. When the pandemic started, she lost her job overnight.
“I lost my only livelihood because of COVID-19. I spent all the savings I had. Now I have no money to pay the rent for a house (5,000 taka per month or $ 58) or buy food and other essentials. That’s why I had no choice but to borrow money at a high interest rate, ”Begum told IPS.
Begum, a widow and mother of two, said she had not paid her rent for four months and her family often had to starve for lack of food. “We cannot eat meals three times a day,” she added.
Domestic work is an unregulated sector
Rights organizations demanded the ratification of ILO Convention 189 and the implementation of the policy for the protection and well-being of domestic workers. In 2015, the government of Bangladesh adopted the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy aimed at securing the rights of domestic workers and it was supposed to be a registration process.
“But the government has yet to implement the policy. We also call on the government to include the issue of domestic work in the labor law to be amended, ”Nahar said.
Domestic Workers’ Rights Network coordinator Abul Hossain said: “At the start of the lockdown imposed on Bangladesh, domestic workers faced a lot of suffering. About 30 percent of them, who lost their jobs, were forced to return to their villages and those who were in town did not have a job. The majority of them did not get any support from the government.
He said many were now in dire straits as they couldn’t pay rent and were trapped in debt. He said it also led to a rapid increase in family feuds.
Hossain, also a union leader, said it was currently impossible to guarantee the rights of domestic workers and suggested placing them in a legal framework to establish their rights.
Haque, additional secretary (labor wing) of the Ministry of Labor and Employment, said the government had distributed cash and relief assistance to the unemployed by preparing their lists. He said there was no specific social protection scheme for domestic workers as they worked in the informal sector.
Haque said that if the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Bill is passed, the rights of domestic workers could be established.
“Discussions are continuing with relevant stakeholders to formulate a law guaranteeing the rights of domestic workers,” Haque said.
This feature was made possible by a donation from the Farida Sultana Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Farida Sultana died in December 2020 after battling COVID-19 for two weeks.