Monday, 2 November 2015

Apart of the family? The dilemma of children domestic workers in Bangladesh

By Isabelle Austin

Farah is a 14 year old domestic worker supporting the daily domestic and child care chores of my neighbor’s house in Dhaka. They hired her at the age of 10 from her parents in a rural village; the family agreed because of their very low income and Farah’s alternatives of early marriage. They said that as a domestic worker, Farah chooses not to go to school, and undertakes chores such as cooking, washing clothes, and helping with errands. I am told “Farah’s a part of the family...we treat her like our daughter.” In fact when I first met her I thought just that, despite her different clothes, eating in a separate room and continually cleaning and cooking for the family.

Now I realise the practice of child domestic workers is very normal, and a growing reality of inequality between urban and rural Bangladesh. The most recent baseline study of child domestic workers in Bangladesh by ILO in 2006, found that out of 2 million domestic workers in Bangladesh, 12.7% are children.  According to rights activists, child labour is increasing, and young children from the age of 6 are migrating across the country to work and live as domestic workers to improve their livelihoods.

Conflicting with my assumptions of child labour and family life, this apart of the family notion leaves me with some lasting dilemmas:

1.      Exploitation and the plight of children working

Inter-governmental organisations highlight this as a blatant example of human rights abuse, as children take on work which is both time consuming, physically demanding and increases their vulnerability to sexual, verbal and physical abuse. Often the least paid in society; they can earn up to 400 taka a month (3.50GBP), most of which they give to their parents, yet work 12- 14 hours a day. Although the government has pledged to eliminate child labour by 2015, with the National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010 to remove children in hazardous jobs, in reality, it is far from being achieved (Islam 2013).

2. Recruitment of children and the role of the ‘host’ family

RMMRU’s research offers important insights to the recruitment of children domestic workers.   Observations demonstrate two main routes of recruitment: through private agencies and intermediaries who directly employ young children, or through personal networks with individuals and families in rural villages. Preference is normally given to the latter as gains are made for the employer, who can pay lower wages and cut out agency costs. On the other hand, Heissler’s (2013) research suggests these contacts are trusted, influential, and may not always seek to take advantage of the children. These contacts are able to provide financial and social support to the child’s family and provide a safe option for the child to leave their village.

3. The position of girls within the wider society of Bangladesh...

... as deeply entrenched hierarchical and patriarchal attitudes prevent their access to public life. Despite Farah saying she does not want an education, and would rather work every day, is this a reflection of the social constructions and expectations of her in society? Moreover, why is it that her only alternative option is to be a burden to her home family and be married off at a young age? Across social constructions of gender, age, social class, and occupation, young female domestic workers can be said to be the least powerful in society.

4.      Children as rational economic actors

Do I accept the food a child serves me, who may not be getting paid at all? If I denied their services then this would undermine their position as a domestic worker. An important element of this is to consider children as rational economic agents, rather than victims, who are motivated to improve their own life as well as their families.

5.      Apart of the family?

The family household in Bangladesh is the most basic, primary institution for social and economic support, yet it can also be the most unequal. Despite the government’s efforts to eradicate child labour, child domestic workers will continue to be a part of family life here.

Actions to support child domestic workers should build upon principles of their rights to work, to better understand the causes and impact of migration, as well as the extent to which they took the decisions about their migration. Moreover we need more research into how remittances have improved the socio-economic opportunities of the children’s own households.


Heissler, K. A. 2013. Rethinking ‘trafficking’ in children’s migratory processes: the role of social networks in child labour migration in Bangladesh. Children’s Geographies, 11(1), pp, 89-101.

Islam, U. 2013. Child Domestic Workers increasing in Bangladesh. Available from:[AH2] 

Isabelle Austin was based at the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in Bangladesh as the Migrating out of Poverty sponsored intern June-August 2015.

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