Six years after the Supreme Court ordered the formation of a national monitoring cell to ensure the rights of domestic workers, there is still nothing to show for it.
A two-member Supreme Court bench led by Justice Imman Ali issued the directive to form the cell in 2011 following a Public Interested Legislation (PIL) by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA).
The monitoring cell was supposed to be the heart of a new policy to control every initiative for worker welfare.
But its slow rate of progress has infuriated Salma Ali, the executive director of BNWLA.
“The government took almost four years after the (Supreme Court) directives to recognise domestic work as a profession and pass a welfare policy,” she said. “(Then) they took almost a year-and-a-half for a first attempt to form the central monitoring cell.”
The central monitoring cell was to be formed under the Ministry of Labour and Employment, with sub cells established in every district under the deputy commissioner of the district and the upazila nirbahi officer (UNO).
According to the welfare policy, Union Parishad data centres would count the number of domestic workers and update their job history if they change their place of work.
Every week, several domestic workers are either assaulted or killed by their employers. We are not moving fast enough to make any visible changes
But almost 22 months after the policy was introduced, the central monitoring cell led by Joint Secretary Aminul Islam has been limited to holding just three meetings on the issue, sources say.
“Every week, several domestic workers are either assaulted or killed by their employers (and) the situation is getting worse with each passing day,” Salma Ali said. “We are not moving fast enough to make any visible changes. But any delays on our part would be irresponsible.”
A source from the monitoring cell told the Dhaka Tribune that it had attempted to do some fieldwork, but had failed due to a lack of funding.
The policy requires the field-level inspection teams to ensure the privacy of the employers, which reportedly involves a complex, time-consuming, and financially taxing procedure, added the source.
Around 32 organisations including trade unions, rights groups, and NGOS are working with the cell network.
A representative of one such organisation, the Bangladesh Institute of Labour studies (Bils), said procedures have been delayed due to the monsoon flooding and the Rohingya crisis.
Bils Member Secretary Nazma Yesmin told the Dhaka Tribune that the conflicting interests of the victims’ parents have also hindered the work of the programme.
“The parents are generally very poor but they are the ultimate beneficiary of the cases,” she said.
“We arranged Tk 50,000 (compensation) for an injured girl from the Labour Welfare Foundation. The fund was approved by the labour minister in our second meeting but her father was exploiting the money, so we had to start transferring the money to her mother’s name.”
Nayma said that three days after the girl was released from the hospital, her mother dragged her home from a rights group shelter.
“The parents had withdrawn the case after taking the money,” she said. “Similar cases frequently happen, even with domestic workers who are raped. Once they are paid off, the case is dropped.”
Settlement outside court is commonplace in Bangladesh, because plaintiffs are not entitled to any monetary compensation after the verdict has been issued in these cases.
According to rights activists, the “hush money” ranges from Tk50,000 to Tk700,000.
Nazma added that the cell can only do so much, and emphasised the need for changing the mentality of people in order to make it effective. However, she grimly noted, money is too big a factor.