The choice: abject poverty or domestic servitude
They work as maids, housekeepers, cleaners. They take care of children, the elderly and the infirm for wealthy and middle class families in rich and upwardly mobile nations. They are found throughout the world: in the G20 countries and the Gulf states, Latin America (where they account for 60 per cent of internal and international migrants), and developing countries in Africa and Asia where vast numbers of poor and vulnerable live alongside the privileged few. They walk the dogs, iron the designer shirts, and collect the privately educated children from school in London and New York. They clean the homes and are on 24-hour call to comfort the elderly in Paris and Dubai, Kuwait City and Tokyo. They cook and serve in Singapore City, Delhi and Moscow.
They are the domestic workers of the world: essential employees, numbering anything between 53 and 100 million people (excluding children), 83 per cent of whom are women. And, due to a range of social and economic factors, including demographic, social and employment trends, an aging population in many regions, more women working outside the home, the decline in state provision of care, and grinding poverty in many source countries, their numbers are growing. Between the mid-1990s and 2010, there was an increase of more than 19 million domestic workers worldwide, the International Labour Organization (ILO) states. Demand is particularly strong in North America, wealthier Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, and in many Arab States.
They live outside the economic growth bubble in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, as well as India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and to a lesser degree the Horn of Africa countries of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. They constitute around 8 per cent of the total worldwide female workforce, a figure which swells up to 27 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the region with the highest number of migrant domestic workers as a percentage of the total workforce is the Persian/Arabian Gulf where it is almost one in three:, and where mistreatment and abuse are widespread and labour laws for domestics are among the weakest in the world.
Legally neglected, socially maligned
Universally undervalued, domestic work is unregulated and poorly paid. In Latin America, for example, the average income is 60 per cent lower than for women employed in other areas, and often the tiny salary is not paid. Human Rights Watch (HRW) records that “unpaid wages – for months and sometimes years – are one of the most common labour abuses faced by domestic workers”. Employers withhold wages, HRW states, to prevent “workers leaving to find alternative employment”. Workers often work excessively long hours without breaks, days off or holidays, and live-in staff are considered on call 24 hours, seven days a week. They may be confined to the house of their employer for months or even years on end, making them extremely vulnerable to mistreatment. Such exploitation is particularly widespread within the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, where the widely condemned kafala sponsorship system is employed. This creates a power imbalance between worker and employer by effectively granting ownership of the migrant to the sponsor, endorsing modern-day slavery.
Many governments do not regard domestic service as “work”, and conveniently exclude the millions providing indispensable care from national labour laws, thus offering them no protection. In Egyp,t for example, where there are 245,000 domestic workers, they are completely excluded from any legislation; Israel offers no legal framework for workers; in Lebanon, where 200,000 migrant domestics live and work, they are routinely denied their rights. In fact, only 10 per cent of domestic workers worldwide “are covered by general labour legislation to the same extent as other workers, [and] more than one quarter are completely excluded from national labour legislation” all together, according to the ILO report. And in the few countries that do provide legislative protection, enforcement is poor or non-existent. Officials often dismiss domestics’ complaints and reports of mistreatment.
In an attempt to rectify this legal injustice, in 2011 the ILO adopted the Domestic Workers Convention 189. The treaty – long overdue – offers protection to those in domestic service equivalent to workers in other sectors. The groundbreaking accord, which entered into legal force on 5 September 2013, covers the basic areas of employment, such as pay and hours of work, social security entitlement, health and safety, as well as specific issues relating to migrant work, such as withholding passports by employers. It also outlaws the deduction of agency fees from salaries, which causes many women to fall into debt bondage. The lack of legal support for domestic workers, particularly for migrants, creates opportunities for trafficking (the second most widespread and profitable organized criminal activity in the world), leading to sexual enslavement and forced labour.
Without ratification and implementation by national governments, the ILO pact means nothing. If implemented – and all pressure should be brought to bear on states to do so – domestic workers would for the first time have protection in, and recourse to, international law. To date, 10 countries have ratified the treaty, with more in the process of completion. Inevitably, governments in Asia and the Middle East (where some of the worse abuse occurs) have not signed up. There is, however, a new and powerful force active throughout the world: people power is the generic term often applied to this worldwide movement of collective action. In a positive sign of the times, The International Trade Union Confederation reports that
Labour leaders from more than 40 countries met in Montevideo from 26 to 28 October to establish the International Domestic Workers Federation to organize domestic workers worldwide, share strategies across regions and advocate for their rights… In the past two years, 25 countries improved legal protections for domestic workers, with many of the strongest reforms in Latin America.
Sri Lanka, according to Al-Jazeera, has banned its nationals under the age of 25 from working as maids in Saudi Arabia after a Sri Lankan maid was beheaded last year for allegedly killing a Saudi baby she was tasked with caring for, something she denied. Similar disputes have occurred between Indonesia and Qatar, Indonesia and Kuwait, and Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates. Last year Nepal banned women under 30 from working in Gulf countries due to abuse by employers, and the Ethiopian government, responding to wide-ranging abuse suffered by many domestic workers, has recently “banned its citizens from travelling abroad to look for work, because [according to the regime]… Ethiopians had lost their lives or undergone untold physical and psychological trauma because of illegal trafficking”, the BBC reports. While such steps reflect the concern now being shown by certain governments, the movement of migrants living in extreme poverty from countries where there are no employment opportunities is unlikely to be affected by such bans.
Vulnerable, exploited and abused
Some of the millions in domestic service throughout the world are lucky and are treated well, but very many are not. Physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of employers is widespread. Domestic workers interviewed by HRW have reported a “barrage of verbal and psychological abuse as well as physical violence from their employers, ranging from slaps to severe burnings and beatings using hot irons, shoes, belts, sticks, electrical cords and other household items.” Sexual harassment and violence by recruiters and employers’ family members is also a risk.
Phally migrated from Cambodia to Malaysia in 2010. Upon arrival, according to the International Domestic Workers Network,
her passport was handed over to her Malaysian agency. Her employer [a 60 year old man] made her work at his house and his shoe shop in Ipoh, Perak, she only slept between four and six hours daily [and] was not paid her monthly salary. After two months, her employer started to rape her. He would also ask her to sit next to him and watch television and then demand to have sex with her. When she refused, he would beat her.
Such distressing accounts are commonplace. Tenaganita, a Malaysian women’s group that campaigns for the rights of migrant workers, says that up to “three million women migrant workers have been lured into the country [Malaysia]. But many now find themselves suffering the most appalling abuses and are detained in camps as undesirables”.
Within the Gulf states (including Yemen), physical abuse and barbaric mistreatment of migrant domestic workers is, it seems, endemic. Emirates 24/7 reports the barbaric story of the Saudi employer of a Sri Lankan maid who hammered 19 heated nails into her body. The nails were in her arms, legs and forehead. She said that the husband and wife couple who employed her regularly beat her up and their seven children threatened to kill her.” The chairperson of Gabriela UAE, a chapter of a Philippines women’s group working in the Gulf state, relays that “housemaids are classified like slaves”. She related the case of a young domestic worker: “The sponsor didn’t [pay] her salary for almost eight months and he was trying to rape the girl,” who in fear of her life “was sleeping with a knife under her pillow,” reports Middle East Voices.
Agents working in source countries promise legitimate well-paid employment, but all too often betray the innocent and trusting (and their impoverished families), and with their partners in the destination state, sell them into slavery.
Sreekala from India worked in Kuwait in 2010, Equal Times reports. Upon arrival the “recruitment” agent sold her for 30 dinars (105 US dollars) to an Arab man who denied her food, beat her and forced her to work “long working hours until 02.00 a.m. and locked her in the house when the employer went on holiday.” She was completely isolated and repeatedly threatened by her employer, who said: “If they killed me, they could disguise my death as a car accident or by saying that I fell over”.
In addition to women, there are hundreds of thousands of young girls employed in domestic work. The average age of children employed is between 12 and 17 years; however, some are as young as five and a “third (3.5 million) are between ages five and 11 years”. There are thought to be 175,000 under 18 year-olds working in Central America and a staggering 688,000 in Indonesia alone, ILO reports. Alarmingly, while child labour is falling in other sectors, the numbers of children in domestic work has increased, growing by 9 per cent between 2008 and 2012, according to HRW report. Many employers prefer children; they pay them less and find them easier to control and, let us add, exploit. HRW reports that in Indonesia, for example, “child domestic workers interviewed earned 0.02-0.05 dollars an hour, which was one-tenth of the normal minimum wage. National laws setting a minimum age for employment are often not enforced for domestic work, allowing employers to exploit children with no consequences.” Children in domestic employment are commonly hidden from public view and at heightened risk of abuse.
The widespread abuse suffered by domestic workers calls for the urgent enforcement of proper labour laws, the ratification of ILO Convention 189 and fundamental changes in attitudes towards women and child workers.
The poisonous feeding ground forcing millions of children and women into lives of enslavement and exploitation is inequality. It is the fundamental cause impelling parents to sell their children and the underlying social injustice driving hundreds of thousands of women away from their families and homes to take up domestic work. It is the plague of our times: it divides and separates communities and nations, instilling despondency, resentment and anger among the dispossessed, feeding complacency and arrogance among the coterie of economically privileged.
Vulnerable and easily exploited, the millions of women and children meeting the domestic needs of the economically better off are victims of a global socio-economic system that has trapped hundreds of millions into poverty and continues to fuel stellar levels of inequality.