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Caged Birds, Silent Song


Caged birds,
silent song

Children working as domestic servants can be invisible even when
they are right in front of your nose, as Maggie Black discovered.

A few years ago a human-rights organization sent me to Bangladesh to examine child slavery. Needless to say, this was not what was on the visa application. My initial brief was to look into bonded child labour but that does not really exist in Bangladesh, as I quickly discovered. So I decided to look at other things.

The Field Director of an aid agency kindly paved my way. He booked me into a local hostelry – let us call it the Acacia Guesthouse – and I set off around Dhaka asking researchers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all about child labour. In Bangladesh this is a vast field as there is no occupation – from manufacturing to transport, from farming and trading to prostitution and crime – in which children are not employed.    

The Acacia was a family-run guesthouse. The owner was extremely helpful. I used the one guest phone relentlessly and was never charged. When it failed, as phones do in Dhaka, he invited me to use his family’s. They were kindness itself. Every morning, I was greeted by a five-year-old whooping around the polished hubcabs of the owner’s car and throwing soapy water on the bonnet. Whenever I pressed the bell outside my room, an older boy brought tea, or ironed my trousers, or went to fetch a rickshaw. All very hospitable, all very normal in Bangladesh.    

Before long I had settled on the key lines of my inquiry. The three ‘child slavery’ situations I identified were prostitution, forced early marriage and domestic service. I was horrified by an incident reported in the paper. An employer had attacked her girl domestic with a red-hot iron and nearly blinded her. Such news items were not uncommon, I was told. The usual motive was sexual jealousy. A wife might attack the maid because the husband was molesting her. Or it might be ‘maid rage’ against a clumsy child who broke things.

Sexual abuse and personal violence against child domestics marked out this occupation as highly vulnerable. Sex was just one form of exploitation. Many domestics – some as young as seven or eight – were on duty around the clock, never left the house, slept on the kitchen floor, ate leftovers, had virtually no holidays or rest breaks, and were paid little or nothing. This was not just ‘child labour’. This was servitude by any definition.

One day there was an episode at the Acacia. I had given my trousers to be ironed without removing my money from the pocket. It disappeared. I spoke to the manager. Only when he instituted a search of the boys’ sleeping quarters did it dawn on me that I was staying in an establishment almost entirely staffed by child domestic labour. A blue plastic wallet similar to mine was found among a boy’s possessions. But instead of my money it contained a thick bundle in tiny denominations. Clearly the boy had collected his tips and this was his savings. So here was a new revelation. A child domestic, anyway at the Acacia, could save the equivalent of $50. So was this servitude too?

Of my reactions to this episode, the one which remained with me most powerfully was the degree to which I had been able to discuss, research, conduct phone conversations about, and contemplate a particular phenomenon without noticing it around me. The boys at the Acacia had been an important part of my support system – as no doubt for all aid workers and journalists staying there. What on earth had I thought? That they were the manager’s sons? Naturally, his children were in school.

Actually I had not thought. I had not been looking at the trees, only at the wood. And I was far from being the only one. You can discuss child servitude with the most sincere child-rights activist, while your tea is served by a teenage maid.

At that time, very few NGOs or researchers anywhere had tackled the issue of children in domestic service as part of ‘child labour’ or of anything else. There was a report from Haiti about restavek children (from the French ‘reste avec’) – children sold or given as virtual slaves by poor families to richer ones to work in their households. There were a few other reports, notably from Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Recently the subject has attracted much more attention. No discussion of child labour today is complete without references to the ‘invisible millions’ of child domestic workers. There is still very little solid information although it is often claimed that they may be the most numerous, most exploited and most vulnerable child workers of all. But the picture – as I had learned at the Acacia – is ambiguous.     

There are a number of variations on the ‘invisibility’ theme. Almost all child domestics are employed in separate households, so that there is no group setting – such as the factory, the plantation or the shopping mall – in which to count them. Since they are behind closed doors in private homes, child domestics are very difficult to reach. And if you conduct door-to-door research and interview them in their workplace – and where else can you interview them if they never leave it? – they say very little. They have almost no capacity for self-expression. They fear being punished or losing their job. Certainly, they will not describe to strangers episodes of violence or sexual abuse. It takes a great deal of time and confidence-building before they can do any such thing.

The jobs are invisible too. Domestic work is unregistered, not part of employment statistics. And the arrangements for hiring a child domestic, even where ‘recruiters’ are involved, are very informal. A go-between, often a woman from the girl’s village, makes a deal with the employer on behalf of the child’s parents; who knows what these deals consist of? Many placements are not perceived as ‘jobs’ at all. ‘We aren’t employing her, no. She is a poor girl from our village whom my wife has kindly taken in. Naturally she helps about the house.’ Is this a child domestic servant or a foster child?

Of all the kinds of ‘invisibility’ surrounding child domestic service, attitudinal invisibility – my own experience – is the most problematic. Youngsters washing cars and helping about the house may be so ubiquitous and accepted a part of daily life that their presence goes unnoticed. In many Third World environments there’s nothing remarkable either about children who sell flowers, peddle trinkets on the beach or stick newspapers through your car window at the traffic lights. But because such children are on the street, beyond adult control and may cause a public nuisance, this kind of child work is noticed and deplored. Domestics are safe at home doing ordinary things under watchful adult supervision.

In most societies where children are employed in domestic service, the practice is seen as okay. People do recognize certain cases as grossly abusive or exploitative. The employer who attacks her child domestic with a red-hot iron is clearly doing something wrong. Every enquiry into child domestic labour produces its painful vignettes. ‘X was abused in all three houses where she worked. She became pregnant and ran away because the employer intended to take away her baby as soon as it was born.’ Or ‘Y was beaten up by family members for the slightest mistake. When she grew older, started resisting and asked for her salary, she was turned out of the house.’ But these appalling cases do not necessarily mean that society condemns hiring girls as maids.

On the contrary, they may see the practice as benign – even beneficial. There may even be a Prince Charming down the line: finding a husband when the time comes is a prize often held out by the employer. Meanwhile, the child is living in a far better home than her or his parents can offer – cleaner, safer, with radio and TV. She is being taught to dress well, speak well, run a house nicely, cook, clean and do all sorts of useful things. If the child is kept indoors, it is only for her own protection.

It is not the nature of the work, nor of the workplace, which places child domestic work in the ‘hazardous and exploitative’ category. Helping about the house has always been part of the upbringing of every child. In Africa, as soon as a girl can walk she may carry a tiny pot on her head when she goes to the river with her mother; in Europe she is more likely to load the dishwasher. Boys may herd goats. Or polish their father’s car.

The important change today is that domestic work by children is becoming commercialized. Increasingly it is not a family arrangement designed to suit the child’s interests, to impart skills or a sense of responsibility, but the outcome of a financial transaction in which the traded commodity is the child’s labour. Many more youngsters now work in households which are not related to their own. The employer’s first concern is not their well-being, but their contribution to the well-being of the household. And whatever the intention to be kind and caring, the real reason children are engaged is that they are cheaper and more malleable than adults. The child has no say, no control over conditions of service, often no access to his or her earnings, no privacy, no freedom, no opportunity to go to school, no social interaction with peers, and sees her or his parents very rarely.

The child’s inferior status – stemming from social or ethnic background – means discrimination in the household, even by the children, and being spoken to in different tones than family members use with one another. Isolation often causes acute psychological stress even where there is no physical abuse. One of the most important ways of helping child domestic workers, in the view of those running projects for them, is to give them a place where they may meet others, create relationships with adults who care, find a non-servant identity, step out of the mental prison into which they have become confined. And, of course, to persuade their employers to let them go to such a place.

Meanwhile, attitudinal invisibility to-wards child domestic servitude remains a major obstacle to reducing the practice. Perhaps it helps to publish agonizing stories of gross abuse. Perhaps attitudes will eventually yield to ‘shock-horror’ tactics. Personally, I doubt it. I had no sense of a connection between the story of the woman attacking her maid with a red-hot iron and the boys at the Acacia Guesthouse. Nor do most people who encounter child domestics as part of daily life. Gross abuse probably only affects a small proportion of the child domestic workforce; but this we can only guess at. We must collect more, and better, information before we make too many assumptions. To imply that everyone who employs a garden boy or teenage girl around the house is guilty of gross exploitation will merely provoke tight-lipped annoyance.

What should be universally recognized is that extending patronage to a girl or boy from a poor family does not justify denying their right to childhood. All children need love, nurture, learning, recreation, a social life, and to develop their identity, self-esteem and creativity. Undertaking domestic work, at home or in the homes of others, should not be done at the price of the rest of childhood. And when work is undertaken by children as part of a financial transaction, it ought to be recognized as employment, not as some surrogate version of child-raising. Employment, whether of adults or of children, should be subject to certain conditions: proper pay, working hours, rest breaks, and so on. This should be what activists go for, in addition to exposures of gross abuse.

Minoti, who is 12, works as a domestic servant in Calcutta, India. One thing became clear to me – during my stay at the Acacia and since. Bringing all aspects of child domestic servitude out of the shadows into visibility is the only way in which the attitudes which endorse it can gradually be changed.

Maggie Black has recently written a handbook for researchers into child domestic work on behalf of Anti-Slavery International; it is shortly to be published by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour of the ILO.

Fact fragments

  • Studies in Indonesia estimate there are around 400,000 child domestic workers in Jakarta alone and 5 million in Indonesia as a whole.
  • In Venezuela 60 per cent of the girls working between 10 and 14 years of age are employed as domestic workers.
  • Country surveys showed that the proportion of child domestic workers under ten years of age was 26 per cent in Venezuela, 24 per cent in Bangladesh, and 16 per cent in Togo.
  • A survey in Morocco showed that 72 per cent of domestic workers started their working day before 7.00am and 65 per cent went to bed after 11.00pm.

    (Child Labour: Targeting the intolerable, ILO 1996)


Pablo’s story
Pablo. Photo by Jeremy Lennard.
At first glance, 14-year-old Pablo looks every inch the fresh-faced teenager. But his coarse and calloused hands are more those of a middle-aged labourer – the result of seven years of tough manual work. His behaviour too is a curious mix – at times boyishly aggressive and enthusiastic, and at others alarmingly dry and adult in his perceptions. ‘El Pato’ or ‘The Duck’, as he is known to his workmates, lives with his mother and four brothers and sisters in the impoverished south of the Colombian capital, Bogotá. His mother, on whom he dotes, works full-time in a coffee factory. His father is a violent alcoholic who recently disappeared from home.

I was born in Cali [Colombia’s third city] but we didn’t spend more than a year in one place until I was seven. Wherever we went my father could never keep his job. We moved eight times, and it was always down to my mother and us children to earn money to live. If we didn’t bring home enough, he beat us – hard and frequently. Now he doesn’t come home any more. One time he hit me so badly that I couldn’t work for several days.

While we were moving around, I went to school from time to time, but I didn’t get on with the other children. I had a lot of discipline problems. Then when I was seven we finally settled in the coffee-growing region of Armenia, where I started work with my mother. I picked coffee on the plantations, and worked in the packing factory for five years.

When I was 12 we moved again, this time to Bogotá. A lot of children in my neighbourhood were working as porters and vendors at Paloquemao [the biggest of Bogotá’s sprawling street markets] so I went along with them. There are about 200 of us in all.

I get up at 5.30am. It takes nearly two hours on the bus to get to the market, and I start work at eight, unloading the trucks. I try to get the fruit trucks, because I don’t like carrying meat. The drivers pay us, or if we choose they give us fruit and other goods to sell. Some of my friends just get paid and go home. But I take the fruit and work all day. I can make much more selling than carrying.

I like my job, and I have lots of friends on the market. But I only do it because I have to – to help my mother and pay my own way. I think my father should pay for my education, so I wouldn’t have to work on the market. I want to go to school. I want to be a systems engineer, but how can I?

The stall-holders don’t like us because we offer better prices than them, so they throw rotten vegetables and try to chase us off. Sometimes, the security guards don’t let us work at all, because officially we are too young to get a permit. If we try and sneak in, they hit us with batons until we run off – but it’s easy to lose them in the market. We work in pairs – one sells and the other looks out for men with sticks.

It’s wrong that children have to work, but we do. It’s even more wrong that they try to stop us working. If I can, I work all day and I finish around seven in the evening. Afterwards we play football to relax. It’s exhausting, but I enjoy myself. I earn between $5 and $8 a day, which I spend on clothes and food. I don’t drink or take drugs. I would like to save money for school, but for now I can’t, because my mother is sick: she has a problem with her breasts.

When I get home, I have to help clean and make dinner. I don’t get much free time.

Despite the tough life he has already endured, Pablo is an optimistic and resilient teenager. This is the more remarkable, considering something that Pablo himself doesn’t reveal or even refer to, but which is likely to restrict his development far more than his lack of education. According to his social worker, Lisbeth Ospina, he is going blind. He has a deteriorating eye condition, which without corrective surgery will rob him of his sight before he turns 20. He is already unable to see detail, and has trouble following fast-moving objects. ‘When Pablo tells you he is saving for school, in his heart he is saving for an operation,’ she explains.

Pablo was interviewed by Jeremy Lennard.
Photo by Jeremy Lennard.

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