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par Graham PEEBLES
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 % 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 % 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 % of the total worldwide female workforce, a figure which swells up to 27 % 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.
Universally undervalued, domestic work is unregulated and poorly paid. In Latin America, for example, the average income is 60 % 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, Human Rights Watch 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 Egypt, for example, where there are 245000 domestic workers, they are completely excluded from any legislation ; Israel offers no legal framework for workers ; in Lebanon, where 200000 migrant domestics live and work, they are routinely denied their rights. In fact, only 10 % 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.
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 Human Rights Watch 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.