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Who's looking out for domestic workers?

Despite being against the law, many Indian children work as domestic servants to boost the family income (Photo: Biswarup Ganguly CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Despite being against the law, many Indian children work as domestic servants to boost the family income (Photo: Biswarup Ganguly CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Every day, domestic workers from around the world experience abuse and injustice – from their employers, recruitment agencies, and even legal systems. In this week's guest blog, Isabelle asks why this is and what can be done to address it.

Most of the workers who experience such mistreatment are women, which is not surprising, seeing as they make up the majority of the total. According to the International Labour Organization, there are at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide (not including children). The Guardian states that around a quarter of this population have no labour rights.

Exploitation and abuse

Apart from daily duties and responsibilities, many domestic workers are forced to face activities that fall outside their scope of work. Numerous cases have come to light where employees have to work 16+ hours without breaks (and no time off), waking up before dawn and only sleeping after midnight, their working conditions deplorable and sometimes dangerous, with little or no pay.

However, the biggest issue is abuse: verbal, physical, and psychological abuse (including threats against their families or even their own welfare). Females are particularly at risk of sexual abuse; there are several reported incidents where they have allegedly been raped by their employer or even impregnated by them. Others have no freedom and are confined to the house; the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 2.4 million migrant domestic workers are enslaved in GCC (Gulf) countries alone.

Indonesian household servants congregate in Hong Kong's Victoria Park
Female domestic workers protest against exploitation in Hong Kong's Victoria Park (Photo: Flying Toaster CC-BY-SA 3.0)

A recent case that sparked international outrage was that of an Indonesian domestic helper, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose former employer (a Hong Kong woman) was arrested for depriving her of sleep, overworking and failing to pay her; and intimidating, starving, and torturing her―causing Erwiana to be admitted to hospital due to her injuries. The employer had also been using household items to abuse several of her other domestic workers.

A risky profession

The fundamental problem is that they are dehumanised because society often sees little worth in the work that they do. Despite being essential to the functioning of the economy, domestic workers are continuously undervalued. With such little regard for their position, it’s no wonder that they are unfairly targeted for maltreatment.

Often, these workers are migrants or even victims of trafficking; they are in a foreign land with no money and nowhere to go, so they are more at risk. Furthermore, the nature of their job requires that they live and work in private homes. As this all happens “behind closed doors”, there is insufficient legal protection—basically they are handed over to their employers, who do what they want with them.

The Guardian further reports: “In some countries (including the UK), domestic workers are bound to their employers through tied-visa systems, which prevents them from leaving to seek employment elsewhere even if they face violence and exploitation”. This is similar to the “kafala system”, which is used to monitor domestic migrant workers in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the UAE. The practice has been condemned by human rights organisations; because an employer is essentially a visa sponsor, their domestic worker forfeits the right to stay in the country if they try to change jobs. Sometimes the employers even confiscate passports and work permits, which prevents them from leaving.

A global perspective

Most migrant workers come from poor countries – for instance India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka – and are recruited by agencies to work in private households in places such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. Although much of the abuse against domestic workers occurs in regions like the Middle East, it is not exclusive to those countries.

The UK, US, and Australia also report many cases of non-payment of wages, physical violence, confinement, and employees being forced to work seven days a week. UNICEF has documented countless incidents where children from all over the world work as servants, and undergo every form of abuse during their employment. It is estimated that over 10 million children are domestic workers.

Failed legal systems

A child works on a Brazilian tip
A child works on a Brazilian tip (Photo: Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brazil CC Attribution 2.5 Brazil)

Amnesty International’s 2014/2015 report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, describes a worrying legal system in Qatar: “Migrant domestic workers, mostly women, and certain other workers were specifically excluded from the Labour Law, exposing them to greater labour exploitation and abuse, including sexual abuse. The government repeatedly stated its commitment to enact legislation to address this problem but it had not done so by the end of the year. Women domestic workers were liable to face prosecution and imprisonment for ‘illicit relations’ if they reported sexual abuse by employers.”

This one example is a reflection of a very problematic (and international) attitude towards domestic workers, which is the basis for these human rights abuses. This is why legislation in all countries needs to be revisited. Rules concerning subjects such as minimum working age and minimum pay have to be set and imposed. There need to be standards for guaranteed monthly payments, paid holidays, adequate rest per day, and humane working conditions.

If there is sufficient condemnation and punishment for abuse against workers, then employers will be less likely to take advantage of their employees. In a similar vein, tied visa/kafala systems should be completely done away with, as each migrant has a right to be free and independent. Finally, recruitment/employment agencies need to be monitored, as many of these charge excessive and illegal fees for their services, and provide no protection at all for the workers.

NGOs and workers’ unions can only do so much; until worldwide laws are changed or existing ones are even enforced, domestic workers will continue to face injustice and ill-treatment on a daily basis.

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