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“She is not just a Bua, but a valued worker”
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“She is not just a Bua, but a valued worker”

Domestic workers are an essential yet almost invisible part of many households, writes Monica Islam, 26, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Dhaka in Bangladesh, who argues for the recognition and fair treatment of these household members.

Bangladeshi families are familiar with the word bua or bai. It has become the Bengali or Hindi equivalent of “maid servant.” Whatever the working hours of the domestic workers, there is a common denominator: they are too often disrespected in return for all the services they render to us.

Domestic workers vary in temperament and style: some need careful watching, while others will not take even the simplest step unless they have sought permission from us. Some are given a parental role, rearing our children, lulling them to sleep, taking them to school, and ensuring they behave politely at public gatherings, so that mothers can heave a sigh of relief and can freely socialise. The best domestic workers keep our houses immaculately clean, ensure that there is delectable food on the table, and may even carry out such duties as assisting us with our beauty and fitness regimes and running errands for us.

Yet in addition to general psychological contempt for the domestic worker, some families resort to physical maltreatment, barring their domestic worker from dining on the same table or at the same time as we do. They are made to sleep on the kitchen floors, without any bed, cooling fans, or mosquito nets.

Will such modern-day slavery continue? How can we reverse the quagmire that domestic workers find themselves in?

We begin by correcting our conceptualisation of domestic workers. The answer is in the word bua itself. While today it stands for “maid servant”, the word has its origins in Hindi and Urdu, roughly translating into aunt. Hence, we will attempt to treat them the way we treat our own aunts.

We can start by calling them by their names. They are human beings and our domestic assistants, not our slaves or untouchables whom we need to quarantine. If we conceptualise workers as slaves, then we are all slaves by that token.

Just like any other employee who is entitled to rights and is bound by obligations, they work in our households for an agreed-upon time and wage, albeit without a written contract. The workers’ union could create employee information profiles, salary grades, and professional contracts, which would then be legally binding. This will be mutually satisfying, as the employer will be protected from fraudulence while the employee will be saved from discrimination and unprofessional working conditions.

We must provide them with the opportunities and resources they need. We need to provide proper lunch breaks. We could allocate a separate room for them, equipped with basic facilities and furnishings. While child labour is a contentious issue (will the child go to school or drop out and work to contribute to family income?), we could ease the burden by assigning the child part-time jobs and lighter tasks, keeping the child’s health and safety in mind. Part-time jobs will enable the child to concentrate on education while earning a livelihood.

Intermarriage is not a cultural possibility, but intermingling is. By interacting with our domestic workers, we can learn more about the world that we live in. For instance, I learnt that some domestic workers are quite proficient in the English language. These are modest means of narrowing the class-based gap.

Domestic workers are already impoverished. They are lagging far behind their employers socio-economically. The least we can do is to be kind to them while they are at work. As employer families know, a day without their domestic worker can be hell.

Although the focus of this article is on domestic workers, the suggestions made here apply to all blue-collar workers, men and women. If we demand rights and respect for our workers overseas, especially in the Middle East, then we need to start by setting an example at home.

photo credit: wuestenigel Wäschekorb mit weißen Handtüchern via photopin (license)

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About me: Just another writer-journalist waiting for a major break-through. I identify as a global citizen, but by birth, I am Bangladeshi – if this makes it any easier for you to talk to me. I read almost anything and everything. My interests are in the areas of health, education, sustainable development, and the leisure industry.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

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