During the pandemic, one of the most adversely affected low-income groups is domestic workers or housemaids. Popularly termed as kajer bua, many women domestic workers have faced erosion of their incomes and consequently purchasing powers in the last one and a half years. These women, who work in different houses in Dhaka and other big cities, are mostly from various rural and remote parts of the country. They used to serve as domestic helping hands.
Their work includes cleaning house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children or elderly or sick members of a family, gardening and sometimes guarding homes and even taking care of household pets. Without them, the lives of affluent and middle-class households become very hard. This was proved during the first wave of Covid-19 when the government imposed countrywide lockdown in the form of general holiday.
To contain the spread of the deadly virus, Bangladesh had announced lockdown at the end of March last year, which continued for three months. During the period, domestic workers were fully barred from entering the houses and apartment buildings. As a result, they faced a tough time and suffered immensely. Nevertheless, many of them survived in this phase as they had received full or partial wages and relief materials, including food from the government and different voluntary organisations. As lockdown started to relax in July, many of them also returned to work gradually.
Nevertheless, a large portion of domestic workers could not get back their works or found fewer works. As many middle-class households were forced to trim down their budgets due to job loss or income erosion, they also cut down the wages of domestic workers by reducing their workloads. As a result, some of them went back to villages as they couldn't stay in Dhaka without adequate work. But, again, in villages, they were also not welcomed. Due to a lack of sufficient resources, some returned to Dhaka to extend their hardships.
A less-attended problem of women domestic workers is lack of support from their families, especially their partners. Their husbands abandon some women workers, and they have to feed their children and even parents and other family members living in villages. Those who have their husbands with them also suffer as many male partners don't work properly. Some even stay idle at home and extract money from the wives' hard-earned income. Some spend on gambling and drug abuse and force their wives to pay for such illicit activities. A net result is a good number of women domestic workers continue to suffer even more than before.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), domestic workers comprise a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable workers. They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book and excluded from the scope of labour legislation. Women domestic workers in Bangladesh suffer from exploitation, including long work hours, poor pay, no leave entitlements, restriction of freedom of movement, and sexual and gender-based violence. The Covid-19 only mounts their sufferings as they are not formally recognised by labour laws and do not come under social protection schemes.