According to a new report issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 15.5 million children work as paid or unpaid domestic workers in the homes of other people. Over two-thirds of these young domestics, mostly girls, are below the legal minimum working age or are exposed to slave-like conditions in their work.
In a child’s own house, chores such as cleaning, cooking, collecting water and looking after other children, are in integral part of family life. But the report focuses on the millions of youngsters doing work in third-party households, where it is common for children to ‘live in’ with their employers. In this situation, many youngsters report daily experiences of discrimination and isolation. Even worse, their seclusion and dependency make them particularly vulnerable to child labour and at times, physical, psychological or sexual abuse.
The authors of the report admit that child domestics are difficult to protect, because they are often sequestered behind closed doors. In addition, children are frequently from very poor families, who do not feel they have the option to complain or take the child away if they are unhappy.
Nevertheless, the ILO is keen to see nations make progress in this area, following the adoption of new standards concerning decent work for domestics in 2011. The standards contain specific provisions which require ratifying nations to protect underage children from becoming domestic labourers, as well as ensuring young workers who can legally be taken on are able to continue their education or access vocational training. States are further recommended to provide protection for legal domestics by limiting working hours, banning night work, placing restrictions on excessively demanding tasks and controlling and monitoring living conditions.
Tanzania is just one example of a country with many child domestics. In a recent study, a third of child workers said they were not allowed to have visitors or see their parents or relatives. Such isolation makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse. The ILO report highlights the work of Wote Sawa in Mwanza, Tanzania, a youth-led group which has been set up to support current and former child domestics. The group has recruited and trained several hundred domestics to form a network of advocates. Its members meet regularly and provide advice to young domestics about their rights. A number of abused youngsters have been rescued and counselled since Wote Sawa was set up and the organisation is now at the forefront of efforts to form a Tanzania Domestic Workers Coalition.