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Apathy in Bangladesh fuels child labor exploitation

About 40 percent of about three million domestic workers are children, who are often underpaid, exploited and abused
Shimu (second from left) was rescued from hazardous child labor in Bangladeshi thanks to support by a charity group. She is seen playing with other children in this undated image.

Shimu (second from left) was rescued from hazardous child labor in Bangladeshi thanks to support by a charity group. She is seen playing with other children in this undated image. (Photo: World Vision Bangladesh)

Published: February 20, 2024 10:36 AM GMT
Updated: February 20, 2024 11:24 AM GMT

A group of people staged a protest in front of a multi-storied residential complex in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka after 15-year-old domestic help, Preeti Urang, fell to her death from the eighth floor on Feb. 6.

Urang, from the ethnic minority Oraon community in Moulvibazar district in northeast Bangladesh, was allegedly abused by her employers prior to her death.

The employers — Syed Ashfaqul Haque and his wife Tania Khondoker — were arrested by police after the victim’s father, Lukesh Urang, a low-paid tea worker filed a case alleging death due to negligence on Feb. 7.

Haque is the executive editor of the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest-circulating English newspaper, and an influential figure in the journalist community.

In the beginning, police were reluctant to register a case and arrest the suspects while Haque allegedly attempted to portray it as an accident. Urang’s family was reportedly offered money in exchange for the withdrawal of the case which they refused.

However, most mainstream media “blacked out” coverage of the case and the arrest of Haque and his wife. Those who did placed the story in their inside pages, supposedly to limit the number of readers.

Haque’s employer issued a press statement about ten days later, claiming it was in favor of an impartial probe and justice, and promised to report on the case neutrally.

Intellectuals, celebrities, and civil society turned a blind eye and barring a few most kept silent. Only a handful of activists and rights groups raised their voices for justice for the girl, who was from one of the country's poorest and most marginalized communities.

Haque received similar treatment over the alleged abuse of another underage domestic help about seven months ago.

Ferdousi, 7, was seriously injured after she fell from the same apartment on Aug. 4 last year but survived. Her body showed signs of abuse and she had an emergency operation for an injury at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, her mother Jyostna Begum confirmed.

Begum filed a case accusing the couple of not providing enough food, abusing Ferdousi, and not allowing her to return home.

She told UCA News they agreed to settle the case outside of court in exchange for 200,000 taka, which the family is yet to receive.

Investigating officer Rajib Hossain said they have submitted a report to the court where the case is pending.

Begum said her daughter is still recovering and spends most of the day lying in bed.

“She limps when she walks. She needs to take a lot of medicine,” she said.

“Devils in disguise”

This employment and abuse of minors, both punishable criminal offenses, by a top journalist, is just the tip of the iceberg as there are thousands of such cases in Bangladesh, says Abul Hossain, coordinator of the Domestic Workers’ Rights Network.

Hossain’s group was among those who protested and demanded justice for Urang in front of Haque’s apartment building.

“The tragic loss of Preeti’s life reveals the real colors of the powerful, educated class of people,” he said.

“These people are devils in disguise,” he added.

Hossain said he was not surprised by the silence of Bangladesh’s power spectrum — from politicians to journalists to some human rights activists and their organizations, including those advocating minority rights — over the death of Urang.

Surveys show child labor has been largely accepted in Bangladesh.

About 4.4 percent of the country’s estimated 40 million children are engaged in child labor and about 60 percent of them are involved in hazardous work, according to a National Child Labor Survey released last July.

Activists say that 40 percent of the estimated three million domestic workers in Bangladesh are children, who are often exploited, abused and denied a fair wage like Urang and Ferdousi.

The powerful exploit the poor

Urang and Ferdousi were subjected to abuse because they hail from socially backward and impoverished communities and the so-called educated class takes sides with the powerful after horrendous injustices to them, says Dipayon Khisa, a tribal rights activist.

“The powerful class abandoned Preeti. This was easy, convenient, and risk-free,” said Khisa. “This class is the largest beneficiary of slave-like cheap domestic labor.”

Most workers in the informal sector, like domestic help, are exposed to exploitation, abuse, and violence, the non-government organization Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) said in a policy brief.

The group conducted a survey based on reports from 13 newspapers that found domestic workers were the third most oppressed segment of workers in 2022 with widespread verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

The report recorded 12 domestic worker deaths that year and noted the actual number was much higher, as most cases remain unreported.

In 2015, the government formulated a domestic worker protection and welfare policy, but it did not fix a minimum wage or recognize a worker's right to unionize.

In a survey, the BILS found the average wage of domestic workers was 4,500 taka with 99 percent of them working without a contract, without any entitlement to compensation or maternity leave or other benefits.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, about a third of the surveyed domestic workers’ wages were slashed, the report said.

Live-in domestic workers — 40 percent of the surveyed workers — were the worst exploited it found. About 55 percent of them received less than 1,000 taka a week.

About 14 percent of the surveyed live-in domestic workers did not get any wage at all.

“The story of Preeti reflects our despicable way of life,” Rana Dasgupta, a Supreme Court lawyer and secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, the country’s largest religious minority forum.

Dasgupta, however, did not explain why the group refrained from issuing any statement over the death of Urang.

“The society has become one where self-interest dictates individuals’ actions,” said Nirmal Rozario, a Catholic and president of the Bangladesh Christian Association.

“Nobody cares for the truth,” he said.

About a week later, the leading human rights group, Ain-O-Salish Kendra (Law and Arbitration Center), issued a statement demanding justice for the death.

Leaders from two leading tribal rights groups — Bangladesh Adivasi Forum and National Adivasi Council — also refrained from issuing any statement or making remarks.

The top women's rights group, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, issued eight statements on various issues but none on Urang’s death as of Feb. 19.

“We somehow missed the incident. This is a mistake,’ said the group’s director, Deepti Shikder.

The failure of people in power to act in time becomes a “life or death” situation for underprivileged people like Urang, said activist Hossain.

“She wanted to leave the apartment to escape exploitation, but she was barred by security guards This tragic death could have been prevented,” he said.

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