Preeti Urang’s Death is Not a ‘Tragedy’: How the Privileged Class Enables Violence Against Child Domestic Workers

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When a child is forced to leave their family home to become a live-in servant at a stranger’s home, when middle-class families exploit the impoverished class by employing live-in child servants, we as a society are complicit in causing harm. And we must stop defining such incidents with the vague and impersonal terms of ‘tragic’ and ‘unfortunate.

 

A few years ago, I was having lunch at an acquaintance’s apartment in Dhaka. We were sitting in their very tastefully decorated room with a large dining table. The food was already served, and the table was full of delicious home cooked dishes. On one side of the wall of the dining room was a pair of large and mirrored sliding doors. It was designed very aesthetically. However, I soon realized that the sliding doors led into the kitchen. When diners sit at the table, they only saw the mirrors and would be too distracted by their own reflection to notice anything behind them. While aesthetics was one part of it, the other objective was to make the kitchen invisible to the guests. The kitchen is where the domestic workers spend most hours of their days. When guests arrive, they carry out the most important work of the family, that of preparing the food. But their physical existence is not an aesthetic part of entertaining guests. The job of the mirror was thus to invisibilize these workers.

The existence of domestic workers provides a big dilemma for the city-based middle class. Their bodies are an essential part of the care of their homes and their lives. However, the existence of the bodies of domestic workers inside the homes of the middle class is inconvenient in terms of their aesthetics. Many of these apartment buildings don’t allow domestic workers to use the buildings’ elevators; many apartment buildings have it codified through regulations or even signs posted in common areas banning domestic workers from using elevators. A few years ago, signs went up in Gulshan Park prohibiting domestic workers from taking walks in the park unless accompanied by an owner/resident of a neighbourhood apartment. There are many other examples of such class apartheid in our society.

The mirror covering the kitchen at my acquaintance’s home seemed like a telling metaphor for how our society treats the issue of child domestic workers. The privileged class cannot function without them, but while their bodies are important for the work they do, the physical existence of their bodies are best invisibilized. The mirror also works as a metaphor for how the law refuses to recognize and acknowledge that such people have the right to be treated equally. Even the most violent cases of child domestic worker abuse thus barely ever see any justice in our society.

Especially when a girl child is involved, the employers manipulate the situation and promise the parents of the child to look after her as “their own child” with a promise to put her in school and to get her married when she comes of age.

 

Preeti Urang – A Victim of Poverty or Institutional Violence?

In the early hours of February 6, 2024, a young girl’s body came plummeting down from the eighth floor of an apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh.[1] Preeti Urang, a 13-year-old live-in child domestic worker, was declared dead on being taken to the hospital that morning. She had been employed in a household in the capital city of Bangladesh for nearly two years. Preeti’s parents were forced by their marginalized existence to send their young, school-age daughter to work at a financially well-off home in the city. The Indigenous Urang (Oraon) community of tea workers in Sylhet not only earn the worst wages in the country but, because of their ethnic and religious background, combined with society’s exploitative and gendered labour practices, have stayed trapped in a cycle of poverty and structural vulnerability for generations. This position makes Preeti, and other children like her, among the most desirable (read: exploitable) candidates for live-in domestic servants for the Dhaka elite.

Violence against live-in child domestic workers that leads to severe injury or death (mostly girls and many from marginalized religious and ethnic backgrounds), sadly, is not uncommon. There have been many cases where such girls have ended up jumping/being thrown from multi-storied balconies and rooftops. According to Oxfam International, between 2008 and 2013, more than 277 domestic workers in Bangladesh were reported to have died due to “mistreatment or abuse by employers”.[2] In December 2015, following advocacy from human rights organizations, Bangladesh adopted a Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy (DWPWP) that aimed to improve the lives of the more than 1.3 million domestic workers in the country. According to the Oxfam report, at least 80% of domestic workers are women and a large proportion of them are children. One of the provisions in this policy is that children under the age of 14 should not be employed for domestic work. While this lays a good groundwork on paper for protecting domestic workers from violence, establishing fair pay, and for preventing children from being employed in households, there is a long way to go in the enforcement of these policies and ending the societal dehumanization of domestic workers in general and child domestic workers in particular.

The violence against these children is widespread and, given how little value is placed on the life of these girls, especially poor Adibashi girls, the perpetrators enjoy full impunity even after committing the most heinous crimes against them. There have been several incidents where children have jumped off rooftops and balconies of multi-storied apartments in the cities to escape their perpetrators. Abuse of child workers living in homes is normalized and there is no way for any outside authority to monitor the welfare of children working in other people’s homes. The cases only become news when they are taken to the extreme and a child must be hospitalized due to injuries, or they die. However, even for cases that do make it to the media, there has been very little in the way of justice. Most of these violent incidents, that don’t end in injury requiring medical attention or death, never become public and are never even spoken about outside the four walls of a domicile.

Justice for these children is non-existent.

The impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such violence comes from the power that is inherent in the middle- and upper-class through their financial positions as well as their political and social affiliations. This is what makes it particularly important to talk about Preeti Urang’s case to understand how this kind of violence and impunity have been normalized in our society.

Preeti was employed by Syed Ashfaqul Haque, the Executive Editor of The Daily Star, the most widely circulating English language newspaper of the country. Ashfaqul Haque, who held one of the top positions at the newspaper and is a very powerful journalist, and in a twist of irony, regularly wrote about government corruption, human rights violations, and the importance of media transparency in Bangladesh. What makes the impunity in this case even more visible is the fact that Preeti was not the first girl who fell from Ashfaqul’s balcony. Only six months before the incident with Preeti, in August 2023, another eight-year-old child domestic worker toppled from Ashfaqul’s home. She had only been living in the home for four days before the incident. Given that The Daily Star regularly publishes articles on various social justice issues and the rights of workers, it was a shock that Ashfaqul faced no repercussions and was able to keep his job after both the first and the second incident. He was eventually fired two months after the incident when a petition calling for justice and impartial investigation begun to be circulated by civil society members in Bangladesh.[3]

In the following sections, I outline some of the ways that the elite of the country are complicit in the abuse and death of live-in child domestic workers. Needless to say, the laws concerning child labor and their enforcement fall severely short and much more needs to be done to protect all workers in the informal sector. But the Bangladeshi privileged class operates within a classist and misogynist structure which dehumanizes girl child domestic workers from ethnically and religiously marginalized communities, making justice for these girls impossible and thus creating a culture of impunity.

 

The Shady Process of ‘Recruitment’

Recruitment of a worker is a legal contract between an employer and an employee. For most domestic workers this is a verbal agreement.[4] Domestic workers who work specific hours and do not live in the home of the employers often have the scope to negotiate this agreement and are free to leave if the agreement is not maintained, although their financial vulnerability often compels them to agree to a less than fair compensation. However, in cases where child domestic workers are involved, the verbal agreement is made between the employer and the child’s parents. Keeping this process of recruitment informal is deliberate and serves the interests of the employers. On the one hand, children who live and work in other people’s homes are promised work and pay but are not treated like workers with specific tasks and working hours. On the other hand, employers take these girls into their homes by promising their parents to make the girl “a part of the family” but are never treated like a family member. The recruitment process takes place by taking advantage of the child’s parents’ financial vulnerability. This process is quite often akin to trafficking although it is never acknowledged as such.

Since the child is usually taken far away from her home, the parents have limited access to their child and are unable to compel the employer to adhere to this agreement. Especially when a girl child is involved, the employers manipulate the situation and promise the parents of the child to look after her as “their own child” with a promise to put her in school and to get her married when she comes of age. The promise of marriage is a particularly nefarious tool often used by employers. It is difficult for parents to turn down this offer as they worry about their daughter’s future. Employers use this tool to accelerate the recruitment process. A lump sum payment is made to keep the parents quiet. Once the girl starts working at their home, the education promise is thrown out of the window, and the marriage promise is too far down the line to even be given a thought. The poor parents of the girl are usually so desperate with their worries of the future of their daughter that they agree to such malicious and unenforceable proposals.

In Preeti’s case, trust was placed in Syed Ashfaqul Haque, a celebrity journalist from one of the most reputed newspapers in the country and someone who had employed one of Preeti’s cousins earlier.

The celebrity status of the employer and the organization he is affiliated with make it urgent that justice is served in this case and that it does not fade from public memory. Justice in this case could make it a turning point in the prevention and fight for justice for all live-in child domestic workers in Bangladesh.

 

The Isolation Tool, Informal Mediation, and the Failure of the Law

It is important to emphasize the case of “live-in” child domestic workers in particular because while abuse can and does happen to all workers, especially domestic workers, the ones who live in homes are the most vulnerable, especially if they are children. Snatching children away from their parents’ home and placing them in a completely unknown environment with strangers who do not care about them itself is a form of trauma. It would be unthinkable for financially stable families, the same families who hire children, to let their own children even stay overnight at other people’s homes.

Even though usually there’s a promise of regular phone calls, this is hardly ever maintained. After a few calls in the first days of arrival they are gradually cut off from the rest of the world. Many families prefer to employ live-in child domestic workers especially because they are more easily controlled and can be easily manipulated to not maintain communication with their families. Older domestic workers could have their own cell phones or would be experienced enough to figure out other ways to communicate. Communication leads to demands for more communication, proper payments, and visits to the village, which inconveniences middle-class families, and they require the stability of having a servant who will make the least demands, and thus the least disruption in the home of the wealthy. This isolation makes it very easy to abuse a child.

Live-in child servants don’t have any set work hours or job description. They are at the beck and call of their masters throughout the day. When this is the situation, the result is abuse. People who prefer to hire live-in child workers are not unaware that this position is inherently abusive. This preference is framed in terms of their docility and mouldability. That is also why specifically girl children from ethnic or religious minority communities are most preferred as child servants. They are the easiest to isolate into submission. Girl children from these communities face multiple forms of structural discrimination: as girl, as child, and as the nation’s ‘other’ in terms of their ethnic or religious background. Thus, their stereotype of being passive and submissive makes them the most preferred form of domestic servant. The isolation also makes sexual abuse of child domestic workers extremely common in middle class homes.

For live-in child domestic workers who are living through the trauma of physical and emotional isolation from their family and friends, there is very little opportunity to escape. These girls are brought from outside the city and, even if they were to escape, the prospect of navigating the unknown physical environment of the city is a daunting task. Preeti’s family told journalists that they had been unable to talk to her for the last one year before her death and even before that, they were only able to talk to her after long intervals. They informed the press that Ashfaqul would always tell them that he was busy or in a meeting and to call later.

According to news reports, the first case, which involved the eight-year-old child working at Ashfaqul’s house, was settled with a two-lakh taka compensation paid to the child’s family. Such settlements are usually framed as compensation for injuries–caused by the fall in the case of this child worker–but such compensations are also a way of hushing up the families to keep the story away from the media spotlight. Even if they were not threatened to accept this money in return for withdrawing the case, as a poor family forced to send their child away to work, it would have been very difficult for them to refuse the money. Many of the cases of child abuse that become public or are in danger of becoming public are dealt with in a similar way. The legal system miserably fails to bring justice to the children from working class backgrounds. Unfortunately, this case demonstrates how power works in our society and how it is exerted by the powerful upon the marginalized. Child domestic abuse is much more widespread than mere statistics will ever reveal. The law fails when such criminal cases are dealt with informally.

 

Class Solidarity Leading to Societal Complicity

A few years ago, I made a police complaint about domestic worker abuse that I witnessed in a neighbour’s home. There were a couple of girl children working in the house next door and the verbal abuse of them was clear and loud for others to hear. When the sound of spanking reached my ears, I reported it. When the police came to the house, they called me in. However, I was rendered speechless when the policeman started empathising with the abusers. He pontificated on his awareness, from personal experience, how difficult it was to discipline child workers unless some form of corporal punishment was handed out to them. The brutality these children were enduring meant nothing to him.

There is little justice to be expected when there is no acknowledgement at any level of middle-class society of the cruelty of employing children as live-in domestic workers.

Some time after that, a young live-in domestic worker hanged herself in the home of a Dhaka celebrity. The question was quickly raised about what led to the girl committing suicide and whether there was any abuse involved. Before any independent investigation could be carried out, the very influential and privileged civil society came out in defense of the celebrity couple. The celebrity was made to look like the victim of defamation, and the narrative of the girl who hanged herself from the ceiling never came to light. The dehumanization of child domestic workers is so brutal that they are not even given the dignity of being a victim, even in death. The reigning narrative is that the child must have done something wrong, she must have angered the employer, or these domestic workers are not as innocent as one thinks them to be.

While Preeti’s death is still under investigation, there is already a lot of evidence of this class and institutional solidarity coming into play. Journalists from The Daily Star were seen physically trying to prevent journalists from other news outlets from taking photos of Ashfaq when he was taken away by the police. The management of the newspaper failed to take any institutional action against him even though he employed three children, if not more, under the age of fifteen and at least two of them fell out of the window of his apartment. The Editor of the newspaper failed to condemn this employee and called the incident “tragic” instead.[5] The use of the term ‘tragic’ suggests that it was an accident, something that was unfortunate but probably unavoidable, as opposed to a case of a series of hiring of child workers, i.e. exploitation. Given Ashfaqul Haque’s upper-level position, the newspaper was more worried about its image rather than taking a stand for Preeti’s justice. Institutions often fail to understand that they could garner more respect from the public if they stand for the cause of justice rather than standing by their employee who has been accused of abuse and violence with clear and public evidence.

 

Invisibilizing Child Domestic Workers and the Violence Embedded Within

Most live-in child domestic workers living inside city-based apartments are not treated as workers. They live under slave-like conditions. There is barely ever any justice for the abuse they face and the deaths. Our society places such low value on the lives of girls who come from a different class, ethnicity, and religion that at most it causes temporary discomfort among the upper classes. These children are made to appear to be victims of their own poverty rather than victims of institutional killing.

These deaths are murders because as a society we forget them too easily, and we think a financial compensation for the family is good enough justice. These deaths are murders because of the structural circumstances and power dynamics between the ‘employer’ and the ‘employee’, thus making the most materially comfortable home become a house of horrors for a child who still needs the safety, security, and love to grow into adulthood. Preeti Urang didn’t just die due to unavoidable circumstances stemming from her family’s poverty. Preeti Urang’s death wasn’t merely ‘tragic’. Preeti Urang’s death was murder.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] www.newagebd.net/article/224808/journalist-ashfaq-wife-sent-to-jail

[2] oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621102/cs-securing-protection-domestic-workers-171120-en.pdf;sequence=1

[3] www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/preetis-death-117-citizens-call-fair-probe-3580801

[4] www.thedailystar.net/law-our-rights/news/need-regulating-recruiting-culture-domestic-workers-3225921

[5] www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/editors-note-readers-3544871

 

*This article benefitted from advice and suggestions from Shabnam Nadiya, Nasrin Khandoker, and Liam O’Donnell.

 

 

 

 

 

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