Slavery begins at homeFrontline November 21, 2009
Audrey Guichon of Anti-Slavery International writes about the suffering of millions of domestic workers in servitude, and the need for an international convention to protect them from abuse and exploitation.
“My employer would shout at me at me for being too slow and was always complaining about my work and ordering me around. I would get up at 6 AM and work all day until after midnight. I never had any breaks or the time to take a bath or sometimes even to go to the toilet. I was only allowed one day off a month and I was not ever allowed to leave the house.”
These were the words of Poulin, a thirty-five-year-old Indian domestic worker. She was employed to be a live-in cook and cleaner to a married couple in their twenties. She was paid far below the minimum wage and when she finally did escape her torment, her employers attempted to punish her by reporting her to the police and falsely alleging that she had stolen from them.
Almost as shocking as her treatment is the fact that Poulin was not employed in Delhi or Mumbai but in London. Though many would think the hiring of maids or servants in the United Kingdom was consigned to the Victorian past, this type of work is on the increase, even in industrial countries.
Millions of people are employed in domestic work across the world. In some countries, domestic work constitutes up to ten percent of total employment. Today, domestic work includes housekeeping, childcare and other personal care, whether paid or for in-kind payment such as food and shelter. It can also include working in the family shop, gardening or looking after the household animals including chickens and goats.
Domestic work is seen as low-skilled work that is easily accessible to people without an education or specific technical training. For many women from poor families it is the only work available, even though it very often means they must leave their children behind and travel great distances for the job.
Equally, many countries heavily rely on exporting domestic workers, trying to combat their crippling unemployment rates and also to garner much needed remittances to prop up the domestic economy. More than 660,000 Sri Lankan women work abroad as domestic workers, nearly ninety percent of them in the Gulf countries. In 2006, Sri Lanka’s mobile labour force brought in $2.33 billion in remittances. This was more than nine percent of the gross domestic product and $526 million more than the country received in foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined.
Yet, despite the large number of domestic workers and their economic impact, their contribution is undervalued – frequently passed off as help not worthy of decent pay, or protection. Prevailing public attitudes towards domestic work and domestic workers perpetuate the notion that domestic work is of little value and importance compared to other so-called productive sectors. Many governments have traditionally regarded domestic work as informal labour and have taken the active decision to let domestic work fall outside labour legislation, resulting in millions of domestic workers left unrecognised, unregistered, and unprotected.
To protect domestic workers like Poulin, Anti-Slavery International is pushing for a new international convention that will spell out the rights of domestic workers. A new convention on domestic work is due to be debated at the International Labour Organization in Geneva in June 2010. If agreed, the new convention will be adopted in 2011 and would be a major step forward in protecting millions in servitude.
The ILO is the only United Nations agency comprised of governments, trade unions and employers. A new convention on domestic work would sit alongside other ILO conventions against slavery and slavery-like practices in the world, including conventions against forced labour and the worst forms of child labour.
Anti-Slavery International focuses on this issue because domestic work is one of the oldest and most important occupations for millions of women around the world and is rooted in the global history of slavery, colonialism and other forms of servitude.
The threats and insults Poulin received, as well as low wages, long hours and lack of breaks, are common examples of the mistreatment faced by many domestic workers. Also, as the workplace for the domestic worker is in a private household it means that, in practice, the protections that do exist are not extended to her. Alarmingly, as the abuses take place behind closed doors and away from prying eyes it means that the treatment of domestic workers has become a hidden human rights issue.
In many cases domestic work can even be fatal. In August 2008, a Human Rights Watch report found that more than one migrant domestic worker a week died in Lebanon from suicide or by accident in desperate attempts to escape from their employers. Over two-thirds were from Ethiopia with the rest from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Madagascar and Nepal.
The mistreatment of domestic workers is now so common place that some governments have taken drastic steps to protect their citizens, even if it affects their bottom line through reduced remittances. After years of dealing with domestic workers routinely abused and absconding from their employers, the Philippines went as far as setting up a black list of countries, including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where it has forbidden Filipinos to work.
The vulnerability to exploitation and forced labour of migrant domestic workers are rooted in policies linking workers’ immigration status to individual employers, excessive recruitment fees, language barriers and confiscation of passports. One example of this is the kafalah system found across the Middle East, which gives the sponsor control over the domestic worker regarding employment and residency, and makes it impossible for the worker to change her employer.
However, the most frequent form of migration of domestic workers takes place from rural areas to cities within their own countries. We see this across the world, with hundreds of thousands of domestic workers migrating from the Visayan islands of the Philippines to Manila, or from the Andean highlands of Peru to Lima.
Perhaps the most vulnerable of all domestic workers are children. The vast majority of child domestic workers are girls and domestic work is estimated to be the single largest employment category of girls under the age of sixteen, globally. Anti-Slavery International’s own research has found that in many countries the average age of entry into domestic work is as young as nine-year-old.
For child domestic workers, the risk of abuse is far higher. Their young age, isolation and separation from their families and near-total dependence on their employers exacerbate their vulnerability. Despite many children entering domestic service in the hope of continuing their schooling, most are deprived of education, creating a cycle of poverty and lost opportunity. Many have been trafficked and many are in forced labour. It is unfortunately not uncommon for the poorest families to struggle to feed all their children, and so it is perhaps not surprising that some are happy to believe the promises of agents, who offer guarantees of finding paid work for their child with respectable families who will also keep them well-fed.
Away from the protection of their parents, these child domestic workers routinely suffer horrendous abuse. Thirteen-year-old Ulka was found by the police attempting to walk 1,700 KM back to her home in Orissa after fleeing abusive employers in Delhi. She was one of the 100,000 girls from the tribal areas of India who work as child domestic workers for higher caste families in Delhi.
For countries with a long history of both supply and demand for domestic work, there is a perception that domestic work is a safe form of work for children, leading to reluctance to include special protections for child domestic workers. Also domestic work is often seen as worthwhile training for girls that prepares them for their role of wife and mother in later life. Indeed, many employers think they are helping poor families by unburdening them of a child, rather than recognising that they are robbing the child of her childhood.
Child domestic workers also exist in the UK. Parents from China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Nigeria have been known to give up or in some cases even sell their children to middlemen in the hope that their children will have better opportunities in the UK than they would receive at home. While some children get lost in the system, others avoid the detection of British social services by being privately adopted by distant relatives, who put them to work instead of registering them in school.
The benefits to children of a new convention become clear if we accept the reality that child domestic workers, robbed of their education, are very likely to grow up to be exploited domestic workers, who through economic necessity will be forced to send their own children into domestic work. By improving pay and employment rights for adult domestic workers the convention will also raise the esteem of the industry and thus help reduce the poverty related factors that result in children entering the industry to begin with.
The adoption of a new convention is, therefore, a crucial opportunity to achieve increased legal protections for domestic workers and deliver real change to the lives of millions worldwide. If successful, this process will significantly contribute to the eradication of the forced labour, trafficking, debt bondage and child slavery to which many domestic workers are subjected.
First and foremost, the new convention would recognise that domestic work is work and domestic workers deserve the same employment rights as any other worker. It would also set out clear rules to prevent abuse and will spell out that they should receive equal minimum wages, working hours and holiday allowance as other workers.
The convention will also deal with the issues unique to domestic work. It would guarantee that domestic workers are not required to reside in the home of the employer, as well as ensuring for those who do a certain degree of independence and privacy, including the need for a separate, lockable room. This is a significant issue to tackle because live-in arrangements can contribute to situations of forced labour for migrants due to restrictions on movement outside of the employer’s home, violations of limits on working hours and domestic workers’ privacy.
While we believe the arguments in favour of adopting this convention are self-evident, we of course anticipate that there will be many obstacles to overcome. For a start, for many countries domestic work is often linked to the issue of migrant work, which remains politically sensitive. This confusion creates an association with more controversial political objectives, such as the desire to control immigration, which can distract from the real issue of the risk of abuse and exploitation of the workers.
Yet, despite the uphill struggle ahead of us we know that there is popular support to protect domestic workers. This October, the British government backed down from objecting to a new law proposed by Anti-Slavery International and Liberty to make the holding of someone in servitude a crime, punishable by up to fourteen years in prison.
The fact that there was cross-bench support for the issue in the British parliament, despite the general lack of awareness that the issue even existed in the country, shows that people are sympathetic to the plight of domestic workers and demand that those who commit this crime to be severely punished.
We hope that this base of moral support can help us in our efforts to achieve our aims over the coming year and finally create a convention that can help end the abuse suffered by millions across the world.♦
Audrey Guichon is Domestic Work Programme Coordinator, Anti-Slavery International. For more on the worldwide campaign defending the rights of domestic workers, see: http://www.antislavery.org
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