Domestic staff – the forgotten people of Bangladesh?

Benefiting from the labour of drivers and part-time or ‘live-in’ servants in the domestic arena is commonplace throughout Bangladesh.  The number of staff and the services required may vary according to the needs and demands of individual house owners but the point is that this unique and arguably archaic practice is wholly rudimentary where even the smallest and simplest of households usually benefit from at least one ‘live in’ helper.

In this post I briefly discuss the work and lives of the staff I have met both in my own household in Dhaka and those working in the households of friends and family which represents the situation for many domestic workers in Bangladesh.

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Preconceptions

When I moved to Bangladesh I knew that living and dealing with domestic staff would become an inherent part of my daily activities.  I remember not feeling entirely comfortable with the idea of people I did not know being part of my private space but I chose to keep an open mind at a time when I already had much to think about with moving overseas.  In my pre-departure days friends would joke about me ringing a bell to summon assistance or servants washing my smalls (underwear!) however as the discussion turned serious the majority admitted that they would feel uncomfortable with the concept of having staff.  In the developed world servants are now confined to the period dramas of Downton Abbey or have been replaced with highly paid nannys or ‘au-pares’ specifically employed to assist with the specific task of child-rearing.  Having been raised in an environment where we are generally expected to be independent with all daily living tasks many felt it would be unnatural and unnecessary to pass over this responsibility to a stranger who would share your living space.

Interestingly no thought was ever given to the staff I would inherit.  In part I think it was ignorance about who these people were and where they might come from.  Subconsciously maybe we also wanted to ignore the uncomfortable reality that it was highly probable these individuals were an exploited group – fictitious figures whose power and position in society was negligible.

Help available in Bangladesh

Whilst levels of assistance vary it is traditional for Bangladeshi families to hire a ‘live-in’ maid or maids who will work and reside at their employer’s address.  The servant or maid is usually female and their age can vary dramatically with teenage children often being employed.  Parents often advertise their children’s services through agencies who then place them according to job availability.  Agencies will expect commission for placements which will not be returned if the worker is unsatisfactory.

Many staff migrate from villages across Bangladesh to households in Dhaka.  Sadly many families in rural communities are forced into this decision for financial reasons where they cannot afford their child’s living expenses.  Often a sibling (usually the eldest male) will benefit from a rural education whilst his siblings move into work.  Whilst the remittance is extremely poor it is felt that at least the expenses of these children are borne out by employers.  Sometimes in their late teens girls may leave domestic work in order to seek a financially slightly more rewarding role at a garments factory.  Boys may later train as domestic drivers or enter garments work with better salary opportunities or return to their village once marriageable age is attained.

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Typical garments factory in Bangladesh

Servants are, in theory, on duty at all times and their treatment good or bad is dependent solely on their employer’s goodwill.  Placements can be risky and young people can be vulnerable to abuse in undesirable households.  From what I have seen maids are requested to carry out all sort of domestic work – washing, cleaning, cooking… and there are no taboos in terms of washing underwear or cleaning toilets.  Experienced maids are often mentally resigned to their fate and carry on the tasks in hand without hesitation.  Whilst family members may complain about a maid’s inefficiency or lack of initiative I am yet to see a maid that has refused to do specific tasks.

Traditionally older women can remain servants though many take a more definite role as cook or child-carer when families expand.  More labour intensive chores tend to be left to younger individuals.   Where there is more than one servant per household there can often be dynamics and power struggles over who does what work and when.

Contrary to the common practice back home foreigners living in Bangladesh also frequently take advantage of domestic help.  Many think of it as a ‘perk’ to an otherwise difficult placement in a developing country.  The level of help accessed often varies dramatically from ‘live in’ or part-time assistance through to a nursemaid or ‘Ayah’ who may visit several times each week to assist solely with childcare.   Typically expats expect to pay more for servants (around $150 per month in addition to food/accommodation) who can speak some English and/or have special skills such as a certified ability to cook continental food.  Many families also look for first aid or child related training when childcare is a priority.  Once these individuals work amongst the expat community their services are often advertised differently – usually on notice boards at expat clubs or through special facebook groups (ie the closed group Deshperate in Dhaka or the Dhaka Moonshine Baby group) so that foreigners who are relocated can hand their existing staff over to incoming expats.  A servant’s CV and references are often expected by recruiting families and it is good practice for departing families to assist their maids to find alternative work.

Both local and foreign families usually employ at least one driver.  With such high dependency on car ownership and usage in a city with desperately lacking public transport facilities driving in Dhaka can be chaotic and highly stressful where road traffic rules are completely flouted.    Workers use travel time for conducting business on laptops or phones whilst letting the drivers take the strain.  Drivers traditionally work a six day week with 4 days off per month – this is often a Friday which is the Islamic holy day.  Hours are not fixed and pay is dependent on experience.  A typical salary is 10,000Taka to 13,000 Taka per month which may or may not include lunch and tips for duty late into the evening.  An annual Eid bonus is also expected.  Once again foreigners can expect to pay significantly more for English speaking drivers or those who are more professional overall.

Managing domestic helpers and their treatment in the home

Domestic help is a big issue in Bangladesh and the constant search for an honest, reliable servant is a topic that women (often full-time homemakers) frequently discuss.  However in my experience Bangladeshis who are raised with servants as children are generally more comfortable at managing and dealing with domestic helpers than foreigners (see below).  Locals generally appear confident in dictating the tasks to be carried out that day and naturally accept that they are more superior to those whose role it is to serve.  Under this prevailing hierarchy culturally different behaviours often exist that I, as a westerner, have not always found myself comfortable with.  For example it is perfectly acceptable to expect servants to clear food wrappings/peelings off the floor and even to clear up food debris that has been placed directly onto the table straight from the mouth.  At times I find myself thinking what my parents would say if they caught me doing such a thing!  I also find it amusing that for the sake of exercising authority tasks that could have been more efficiently performed by one-self are instead delegated down the line.   As I have learnt respect for hierarchy in the home as well as the office is a huge cultural difference in Bangladesh that is ingrained in daily life.  As a foreigner I must appreciate that difference even if I do not agree with it.

Expats (and particularly us sensitive Brits!) tend to tread more carefully with the treatment of employed staff.  Often foreigners show higher levels of kindness when work has been performed well and there is a tendency to be more generous with payment (this is may be in part due to the attractive remuneration packages of many working overseas).  There is also more of a cultural preference for part-time assistance rather than ‘live-in’ help where the home is seen as a place exclusively for family members.  I suggest that the reasons behind this better treatment may include inexperience or embarrassment regarding language difficulties.  Whilst it may not be politically correct, I also think that there is generally a greater tendency for foreigners to treat people more equally where, for many Bangladeshis, there is arguably an ingrained sense of class division.  However, I have also seen first-hand foreigners who have behaved aggressively to drivers and household staff.  I cannot account for this level of overassertedness – perhaps it is simply due to personality type, a power trip or the frustrations that come with living overseas.  Again I have felt very uncomfortable as an observer to this type of confrontational behaviour when it occurs.  It can often be completely unexpected and from those who are otherwise extremely polite and hired in the most senior of roles.  However, as a friend once said to me – “you may like your friends and family but it does not necessarily mean you will like the way they treat their servants”.

Domestic workers as forgotten people?

Whilst I have now accepted and appreciate the support our maids past and present have provided it would be wrong to say that I have completely come to terms with the arrangement.  Practically I find that I do a lot of my own cleaning and cooking out of habit and against Bangladeshi custom find myself continually thanking our staff for their help due to the way I was raised.  Because of my own life experience I find it hard to think of our helpers as anything other than equal human beings who happened to be born into less fortunate circumstances.  Behind every person is a very human story and I find it difficult not to show some level of interest or care regarding the very people who ultimately share our home.

From the way my family manages our servants in Chittagong I know that it is not really appropriate to be friendly with our current servant here in Dhaka – the idea being that servants should know their duty and their place.  Whilst I respect this view (I have heard of stories where staff members have exploited a trusted position) I struggle to deploy the same level detachment to someone helping me to make my family’s life easier.

When the opportunity has arisen I have been able to ask our young maid in broken Bengali about her village (near Mymenshingh) and she has told me a little about her own family – besides her parents she has two brothers and a younger sister.  She told me proudly that her eldest brother goes to school.  I was able to reassure her that were both living away from our families the implication being that I also miss home.  It was actually a very emotional moment though I know that I am probably more than twice her age with some family support.  Sadly it was clear that this minimal level of kindness is so rarely shown as her reaction was one of sheer elation that I would ask about her and her own family.  How desperately sad I can sometimes feel.

The practice of hiring servants seems set to continue in Bangladesh.  With millions of families living below or on the poverty line this habitual practice is a more than just stable source of income on which many rely.  For many brassic rural communities it is a lifeline for overpopulated families.  In a country where washing machines, dish washers and other modern conveniences are limited to the very rich (we do not have them!) it seems that at least for the foreseeable future there will always be domestic work available for delegation.

Will domestic workers remain a category of forgotten people in Bangladesh?  In my view Bangladesh is not yet ready to challenge the rigid social hierarchy that exists in the domestic sphere.  Interestingly similar hierarchical structures also exist in the work place here which provides many challenges for cross-cultural working.  I suspect that at the present time the active promotion of social hierarchy is due to specific cultural and religious reasons in Bangladesh where many believe that God or Allah has dictated one’s role and place in society.  However, with a secular government presently in power social groups such as the Human Rights Watch and influential politicians should seek to secure the safeguarding of domestic workers both young and old through legislative means.  In time perhaps servants could be registered to households or house owners and allocated to a warden responsible for domestic staff welfare in different localities.  Sadly this level of social welfare remains a distant dream.  Until such regulation is achieved news stories will continue to appear regarding the fate of abused or tortured domestic workers – a category of forgotten people in Bangladesh  – powerless individuals who are neither seen nor heard.

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8 Responses to Domestic staff – the forgotten people of Bangladesh?

  1. jessiekaysk says:

    Thank you that, it was very interesting. We have a maid that comes every day and I constantly thank her when she does things. We talk about her family and she’s taught me to cook some bengali items. While I guess not necessary, a bit of humanity goes a long way and should be exercised by everyone.

    • Hi Jessie – lovely to hear from you again. Sorry for the late reply – I am quite heavily pregnant now and am feeling the tiredness of the third trimester. Are you on facebook? It would be lovely to catch up properly about your experiences in Bangladesh so far…

  2. zab50 says:

    Hello, I am born and raised in Canada but my in-laws live in Bangladesh and I think you presented a very biased and judgemental article here. Yes there are stories of people that exploit their maids. However, I have never ever seen that first hand and I have visited countless households. The servants are treated with respect and I have never EVER seen someone spit on the table. Yes at first it took me a while to get used to and when I got up from the table I wanted to pick up my own plate. However, this is the custom and it’s their job. In fact they felt offended or laughed when I did many things for myself. Also, I’d like to ask since you think this custom should be abolished basically, who will employ and pay all these people? They earn and living and support their families. My in-laws put their maids children through school and even though her son is now 29 he still loves for free on their property and works at a university, a job which was found through their network especially for him. Do you think he would have had the same opportunities in his village?
    When I was there this past December my mother in law told me about all her maids and their kids. In fact she even committed to buying one of the servants son a rickshaw for himself, because he pays such a high daily rent that he does not go home with much money at the end of the day. Her son does not work for them and they will receive no benefit from this, but it’s a human kindness.
    What is the difference between the servant cleaning the toilet and the cleaning person that comes to my home weekly to clean up. Should I pre-clean the toilet? Or should I just do it all myself, and then he can figure out some other way to make a living? There are cleaning people in all countries and I have had them in Canada and in Holland where I live now. I think it’s offensive to them that you feel they perform such a menial task that it’s an insult. I guess they should all get better jobs; janitors and waiters too while we are at it.

    • Hi Zabrina – Thank you for your feedback and comments. I am sure that your experiences with domestic staff in Bangladesh were different to my own personal experiences and it is so nice to hear that your own family has done so much for their own maids and their family. In Dhaka where my husband and I now live we have also paid for our previous maid to learn to drive so that he may get a job as a driver in the future and we plan to enrol our new maid into a school once she has sat her admission test. Sadly however it would be wrong to deny that in some households domestic staff are not abused verbally and physically – one only has to read the daily newspapers to see that this is the case. Whilst I know that the tradition of keeping domestic staff is unlikely to diminish soon (this will only come with the development of Bangladesh) I would like to see their rights safeguarded in the community as working in individual households can make staff very vulnerable. Finally, in explaining the roles of servants in the home I wanted to make the readers, many of whom do not reside in Bangladesh aware of the tasks that are carried out in the home on a routine basis. This was not intended to demean the work that they do or others internationally who do similar work. Thanks again for your comments – much appreciated.

  3. Wasif says:

    ” perhaps the tendency of westerners to treat all people more equally if not as equals. ” cannot really agree with this, having seen how the hierarchy works abroad. Their also exists rampant snobbishness of people in western countries who are from a more elite class. So, no westerners are not inherently predisposed to treat people more equally than are Bangladeshis. This depends on a very individual level.

    • zab50 says:

      I agree with you in that particular statement did cause me to take a step back. One only has to look at the history of colonisation and slavery to see the “tendency to treat people more equally”. I think that a perspective can be explained without making it seem like one culture is superior to another in how they treat others.

  4. Istiaque says:

    Wow! Loved ur writings. Being a Bangladeshi I share the same feeling. The other write up on apollo directed me here. Simply loved it. Continue pls.

  5. Sani says:

    Hi there, I found this to be a great read and true to my own experiences with servants in Bangladesh. The comments were also good reading. I am currently making a documentary on this topic, it would be awesome to have a chat with you if you do not mind. 🙂

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