An organisation working with child domestic labour in Bangladesh estimates that there are 250,000-300,000 resident child servants in Dhaka. This is one of the most inaccessible and secretive forms of child employment, with its own particular hazards for the children.

By Jeremy Seabrook

July 1999

SHOISHOB, an organisation working with child domestic labour in Bangladesh, has just published the results of a survey which covered more than 10,000 middle-class households in Dhaka. In these households, nearly 8,000 resident servants were counted, of whom 2,500 are minors, more than 80% of them girls. The peak ages of child servants are 10 or 11 and 14 or 15.

Helen Rahman of SHOISHOB says, 'You often hear middle-class women say of their servant, "Oh, she is just like my daughter." I have yet to hear a servant say of her employer, "Oh, she is just like my mother."'

On the basis of the survey, SHOISHOB estimates there are between 250,000 and 300,000 bandhu maids, that is, resident child servants, in Dhaka. This is one of the most inaccessible and secretive forms of child employment. It is also for the children themselves one of the most hazardous, not excepting the child flower-sellers weaving among the traffic, the workers in garages and repair-shops, the child workers in plastics, chemical and shoe-factories. It is simply that the hazards are different.

The servants are children of some of the poorest families. Their earnings are often negligible. A majority earn between 100 and 200 taka a month (US$2-4); the second highest number receive no pay at all. They are fed and sheltered, which has two advantages for their impoverished families. It represents one less mouth to feed, and it also 'protects' the future marriageability of the girl. That is to say, the middle-class family is thought of as a safe place, unlike the streets of the slums where their parents live.

This perception is often mistaken. 'We know that large numbers of servants are abused,' says Helen Rahman, 'not only beaten, but also abused sexually.' This is one reason why 10- and 11-year-olds are often preferred. They are considered to be beneath the age of sexual vulnerability.

As far as the older girls are concerned, the women of the house sometimes feel it better if their husbands' sexual activities are restricted to servants. It keeps them in the home. They are less likely to look outside for sexual consolation. Of course, if the son of the household makes a relationship with a servant, it is unlikely to be viewed with the same collusive indulgence.

The pattern of work is exploitative in the extreme, and even those employers who regard themselves as liberal towards their maidservants seldom perceive the demands they make on them. 'It is a habit of mind,' says Helen Rahman. 'Many people believe they cannot live without their servants. It is this that we have to challenge.'

I was struck by the truth of this a couple of days later when talking with a highly educated professional woman, whose two daughters were in the USA, both married to Americans. She said the reason why she could not think of settling in America is that she has been spoiled by having everything done for her; a privilege in Bangladesh which she could not expect to find in the United States.

The child domestics must be up in the morning before anyone else in the household. The pattern of their labour is surprisingly similar. They sweep the floor, wash their face, prepare breakfast for whenever the householders and their children require it. They clean and cut vegetables, sometimes prepare the meal. They look after the house, wait on visitors, and if there is a party, are expected to serve all comers. They are also nearly always the last to go to sleep after they have cleared away the evening meal, washed the vessels and set the house in order for the morning.

People are often unaware of the degree to which they depend on their servants. They say, 'Oh, she does nothing very much,' but in practice, their presence is indispensable to the running of the household.

In Dhaka, there are three options for poor young women. All involve clothes. They can make clothes, like the 700,000 young women who work in the garment factories; they can wash clothes, like the hundreds of thousands of maidservants, or they can take off their clothes, whether as sex workers to service strangers, or as youthful brides. It is far from evident which is the least onerous fate.

Helen Rahman does not believe that attacking child domestic labour from a high moral position is particularly helpful. This, she believes, only hardens attitudes. SHOISHOB is running schools for about 3,000 child servants in Dhaka, although of course, these reach only those employed by the most enlightened section of the middle class. The schools run for two hours in the afternoon, from 3 to 5 p.m., when domestic duties are perhaps lightest.

We visited one centre in Mirpur; a ground-floor verandah in a substantial house, where bamboo mats have been spread on the concrete. There are about 20 children, aged from about 10 to 15, mostly girls, although there are three boys. They work seriously, with the greatest application; studious, obedient.

This is not only evidence of the disciplines of labour to which they have already become accustomed, but is also the only activity of the day in which they are the focus of attention. Most said that the afternoon is for them the best part of the day.

Their ambitions are to become 'job-holders': that is, office workers, doctors, teachers. One of the least researched effects of life in middle-class families for the children of the poor is that their sense of self, their identity may become impaired by continuous exposure to and contact with the alien values of the households in which they serve; especially if, as is often the case, they change jobs frequently.

They do not do this of their own accord. Often their parents may wish to improve their income, to place them in a 'better' household; or they may come to resent the growing involvement of their child with the employing family and decide to move her without any reference to her wishes.

I asked the children what they dream about at night. One girl dreamed of the old holy man who had died in the family she served, and some mentioned the television series of Sinbad which they are allowed to watch, but most spoke of the families, from whom their absence must seem like a punishment, for wrongdoing they cannot fathom.

Confusion, overwork, extreme exhaustion; many servants are expected in the 'free' moments to look after the younger children of the household. They are often left alone in the building when the mistress goes out. Few girls are entrusted with outside errands. Most remain captive. One girl said, 'I stand on the verandah, because there is nowhere else for me to go.'

Once you are alerted to their existence, their presence is clearly visible, all over the city, dark faces looking out from behind grilles and windows, effaced figures carrying children a few paces behind the parents, cleaning metal vessels, sweeping doorsteps, chopping vegetables; an army of silent unobstrusive waifs, without whose ministration the life of their privileged mistresses would be laborious and enervating indeed.

It is astonishing how things can be taken for granted, until the injustice or insensitivity of them are pointed out; how unnoticed evils may remain, as long as they serve the interests of privilege. Helen Rahman believes there are two ways forward. One is the shaming of people who depend unreflectingly upon the services of their choiceless servants; and the other, the recognition of domestic work for the labour it is.

If the girls had contracts, limited duties, due definition of what is expected of them, that would also put an end to some of the worst abuses. As it is, most girls have no idea of what to expect, they accept orders, they take as given the demands upon their time and energies. It does not occur to them that they could intervene in any significant way.

Levels of perfection are demanded of them which are expected in no other job. If a girl breaks a dish or an ornament she will be scolded, and possibly, punished. She will be told only of the things she has done wrong; rarely praised for the patience and diligence with which she performs her daily duties.

It is significant that of the 20 children in the Mirpur school, 17 come from the country. This sets up echoes of Britain in the 19th century, when unspoilt country girls were preferred as maidservants, because they have not been ruined by urban life. Precisely the same justification, exactly the same rationalisations are at hand in another culture, another climate, 150 years later.

My own grandmother's sister travelled in the carrier's cart in the 1870s from their village in the heart of England to domestic service in London; the same frightened children, apprehensive, docile, yielding, waiting to be moulded by whatever values and expectations the receiving family chose to impose upon them. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.