On International Domestic Workers’ Day, Fatema Tuz Johoora and Tarek Aziz explain how gig economy apps can make Bangladesh’s invisible army of domestic workers visible, as well as offering new opportunities to help them claim their rights to better pay and conditions.
As we grew up in Dhaka, we know just how integral domestic workers, and particularly women domestic workers, are to cooking, cleaning and care of children and older people in Bangladesh: they are often known as bua (a Bengali term that literally translates to “aunt” but is used to refer to domestic workers) and “servants”, derogatory terms which add to their stigmatisation.
As in many other countries, such domestic work in Bangladesh is informal, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation, such as long working hours, low wages, and verbal, physical and sexual abuse. And being outside the formal job market, and not even recognised as workers, also makes these workers invisible.
In this blog, we look at whether new Uber-style apps that connect customers to verified and skilled domestic workers can improve their lives, status, and visibility.
The context: poor data, widespread exploitation and lack of rights
There is a dearth of reliable data on the exact number of domestic workers in Bangladesh – estimates range from 331,000 (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Survey 2006) to 2 million (Domestic Workers Rights Network) of whom 90 percent are women and children. A significant number of children are working as domestic workers, as their income is often crucial for poor households.
What is clear is that these domestic workers continue to work in informal, precarious, underpaid, and abusive conditions. On top of that, they have to juggle jobs with unpaid care work at home without any support, including with childcare. The Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies looked at the cases of 44 domestic workers in 2020 : “Of them 16 were killed, including 12 mysterious deaths. 12 people were raped, 12 were severely tortured due to physical injuries and four committed suicides.”
This goes on despite the fact that, in December 2015, Bangladesh adopted a Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy (DWPWP), that gives domestic workers key benefits and protections such as sick pay, paid maternity leave, decent wages and rest and leisure time, as well as stipulating that children under 14 should not do domestic work.
Many workers’ rights organisations are now calling for domestic worker rights to be properly recognised as workers in law, through changing the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006. As Abul Hossain, Coordinator of the Domestic Workers Rights Network (DWRN) says: “There needs to be a movement and the workers need to raise their collective voice in order to ensure successful implementation of laws and policies and change these deep-rooted norms.”
The context: expanding demand
The need to change domestic workers’ reality is made more urgent by the fact the number of workers enduring such conditions is on the rise. According to the Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organizing (WIEGO) and International Labour Organization, there are approximately 76 million domestic workers, who represent 2.3 per cent of total employment around the world and demand is increasing globally.
A growing elderly population that needs care is contributing to this increased demand for domestic care. And, as more women take formal jobs, they have less time for care so hire domestic workers to fill that gap. It is ironic that progress of some women into formal employment, is coming at the expense of substandard employment for more marginalised women – including those who are poor, women of colour, and rural.
Changing the old recruitment model through tech
Traditionally, domestic workers do not use formal recruitment to access jobs: instead, they scout around opportunities in the neighbourhood or find a job through word of mouth from others in their social networks.
But technology is changing that. Prominent in Bangladesh is the Hello Task platform, which uses an ‘Uber-isation’ model: an app-based platform that connects customers to the nearest, verified, and skilled domestic helpers in real time and on demand.
But can this model work for the domestic workers since most of them do not own a smartphone and generally have low literacy? To tackle this challenge, Oxfam in Bangladesh supported the Hello Task platform to develop an inclusive technology that uses interactive voice response to connect with workers. Unlike other gig-economy platforms, this allows workers with low/no literacy to use the platform by simply pressing buttons from 0-9, which means that the domestic workers can access job opportunities with a basic-feature phone.
Upskilling and claiming rights
The new visibility and connections to workers via technology is creating new opportunities to support them with skills and rights.
Domestic care work has been widely perceived as a job that requires no skills. In response to the need to upskill these workers to boost wages, Oxfam supported the NGO UCEP Bangladesh to develop a training module. This project, ‘Securing Rights of Women Domestic Workers in Bangladesh’ offered both training and certification from National Skill Development Authority and included both life-skills training to develop agency, help claim rights and build confidence; and technical training such as hygiene, cooking and operating home appliances.
Domestic worker Lipi Akhter who has finished the life-skills straining says: “This is a job like any other that we’re doing. I am going to protest if my employer misbehaves or tries to make me work extra hours without any pay. The training has given me the confidence to ask for my rights to claim leave and negotiate for a better wage.”
The training reflects the critical fact that workers cannot claim rights if they do not know about them; around 99% of domestic workers are not aware of the 2015 laws.
How tech can help everyone see and value these workers
We cannot value what we cannot see. So, a crucial step to ensure better wages and working conditions is recognising them in data and in policy.
By collecting data about domestic workers ethically, gig-economy technology can help to increase their visibility and ensure their contribution is documented. With the help of the same technology, the public and private sector can also build an ecosystem where every family employs trained, skilled, and verified domestic helpers, providing a more secure workplace for millions, and helping to establish domestic work as a dignified profession.
According to the researchers and civil society organisations, the domestic worker industry is valued at US$4 billion, which is currently not included in Bangladesh’s national GDP calculations. By comparison the 4 million workers in our ready-made garments industry, who have a similar profile in terms of gender and formal education to domestic workers, contribute $24 billion. Undoubtedly, the latter are an important group, but they have significantly more visibility, globally and nationally, than the domestic workers.
But tech is just one step to real empowerment
Given our government’s Smart Bangladesh Vision 2041 – which aims to move towards mass, citizen-centric digitization – the expansion of gig economy apps looks set to continue in Bangladesh. Mahmudul Hasan Likhon, co-founder of Hello Task suggests: “There is a need for increased competition to build a healthy, secure, and flexible new employment marketfor the domestic workers.” With more players in the market, it is likely to draw attention from the regulators and policy makers to improve the overall employment conditions of these workers.
Of course, as we have seen elsewhere, there are many pitfalls to the expansion of the gig economy. Uber-isation of domestic work does not automatically mean empowerment of workers. There is no law to protect these women, eliminate gender-based violence at domestic work and regulate these new tech platforms.
So, the technology revolution in domestic work is just one, albeit important, step to delivering better pay and conditions for domestic workers. Further concentrated effort will be required to organise, unionise, and build leadership among these women to strengthen their collective voice, win legal rights, and demand decent lives for all of Bangladesh’s domestic workers.
Find out more: read the report on the Oxfam-supported project to train domestic workers: ‘Securing Rights of Women Domestic Workers in Bangladesh’. This is the latest in a summer series of blogs related to labour rights that started on International Workers’ Day. Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest posts and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn