Domestic work: amongst the most dangerous work in the world

Today, 16 June, is the fifth anniversary of Convention 189 (C189) adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). It is a text that has granted rights and protection to 15 million domestic workers, ranging from a minimum wage and access to social security to the right to a written contract and daily and weekly rest periods. This is something that was unimaginable just a decade ago.

But whilst 15 million out of a total of 67 million domestic workers worldwide have benefited from labour rights – and there is reason to believe the number will continue to grow – at least 2.4 million in the countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman) live and work in conditions described as “modern slavery”.

Although a substantial share of domestic workers (80 per cent are women, and the figure reaches 99 per cent in places such as Hong Kong) do not experience forced labour, physical or psychological abuse, legal defencelessness, sexual abuse or, in extreme cases, the threats of death during their working lives, a small percentage are faced with such realities – at least 3.6 per cent (according to a very cautious estimate that only takes into account the figures for the GCC). Nor should it be forgotten that at least 7.4 million domestic workers (not included in the global figure of 67 million, which corresponds to 176 countries) are minors aged under 15, working up to 18 hours a day for a pitiful wage or no money at all.

Today, on International Domestic Workers’ Day, the professionals in the sector, trade unions, human rights organisations and civil society representatives have taken to the streets in many places around the world to press governments to ratify the ILO Convention and its accompanying Recommendation 201. Only 22 states have done so since 2011.

They are also seeking to raise public awareness about the importance of the role they play, both for the economies in which they work and those to which 11.5 million domestic workers send remittances.

Just 5.4 per cent free of abuse… in a ‘model’ economy

Hong Kong is the world’s freest economy. It is one of the least corrupt territories in the world. The rule of law is one of the pillars on which it rests and, year after year, its students occupy the highest places in international academic studies.

But the former British colony, one of the economies with the highest densities of migrant domestic workers (who make up 10 per cent of Hong Kong’s active population), has been a living hell for Erwiana Sulistyaningshi and Kartika Puspitasari, two Indonesian domestic workers particularly well known there for having won cases against their employers/abusers.

As revealed by the Coming Clean report published in March 2016 by the Hong Kong human rights organisation Justice Centre, only 5.4 per cent of (migrant) domestic workers are free from exploitation or threats at the hands of their employers.

The remainder, in varying percentages, are confronted with forced labour (17 per cent), human trafficking and different degrees of exploitation, the most vulnerable being women from Indonesia, the under 30s and, and those hired through ‘unscrupulous’ recruitment agencies.

As the study’s co-author, Jade Anderson, told Equal Times: “Employment agencies play a pivotal role in the experiences of migrant domestic workers, both in their recruitment and in their experiences in Hong Kong.” Unfortunately, “for most agencies, it is all about the collection of fees through the recruitment process”, fees that soon turn into debt for the future employees.

“Justice Centre found that one of the most significant predictors of whether a migrant domestic worker was likely to be in forced labour was recruitment debt,” said Anderson. Just over 54 per cent of the migrant domestic workers surveyed for the study said they had paid to secure their contract, and for 35 per cent, the debt incurred represented 30 per cent or more of their annual pay.

Measures taken by the authorities to avoid undeclared work, such as the obligation to live in the employer’s home and to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of their contract being terminated (regardless of the reason), do nothing to help the women’s situation. The same problems can be found in Singapore and the United Kingdom (since 2012), where similar measures apply.

Although the Hong Kong authorities have recently published a draft code of practice for employment agencies, the Justice Centre regrets that it fails to refer to forced labour or human trafficking, despite the findings of its report.


11.5 million migrant domestic workers, 2.4 million enslaved

A 2014 study conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC, Facilitating exploitation) estimates that 2.4 million domestic workers are working in slave-like conditions in Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The abuses and impunity are such (every year, women return home in coffins in their dozens – or thousands, fear sources consulted by Equal Times and humans rights organisations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch) that numerous Asian countries have placed temporary bans on the sending of their nationals to work there.

As a result, Saudi Arabia is now turning to Africa to recruit the labour it so needs. But doors are being closed on it there, too. Mauritania, for instance, decided to suspend the migration of domestic workers to the country until it improves protection for the workers in the absolute monarchy.

The demand for domestic labour (not only in the Gulf region but across the world), far from stagnating or falling, continues to rise, which is why the ITUC, trade unions in the sector and human rights organisations from around the world are pressing the international community to ensure that legal reforms are carried out to protect this workforce. And, more concretely, to bring an end to the kafala system, which makes employees all the more vulnerable.

“Until the authorities of Saudi Arabia are willing to abolish this system, I cannot see how domestic workers are going to be able to improve their situation in the country,” Marieke Koning, Policy Advisor at the ITUC and co-author of the guide Domestic Workers Unite, told Equal Times.

Under the kafala system, employees are tied to their employer for the entire duration of the employment contract. They cannot negotiate their working conditions, terminate the contract or change employers, unless they obtain the latter’s consent. In the case of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in addition, the employee relies on the employer for the permit required to exit the country.

Trade unions and human rights organisations are more than familiar with the many abuses arising from this system: 20-hour days (with little food or drink), seven-day weeks (without pay or less pay than agreed, or even death threats for those daring to ask for it); women being locked up in houses while their employers go away; the confiscation of passports, mobile phones or any other device enabling communication with the outside world; and no knowledge of their address, the local language, or their rights, etc.

Koning, however, is slightly optimistic. “Some countries, especially Bahrain, but also Kuwait and Oman, are taking steps in the right direction, introducing legislative reforms to improve the rights and protections for migrant domestic workers. They are small but not insignificant steps.”

Countries such as the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, for example, “need to act by putting their house in order first”, points out Koning, by regulating and keeping a closer watch over the recruitment agencies on their own territory, and checking the labour legislation in the destination country, for example.

“It is scandalous and unacceptable that agencies should profit at domestic workers’ expense. Making money out of breaking the law [by charging, usually abusive, recruitment fees, for example], and out of disregarding these workers’ rights [through deceit or failing to provide assistance in situations of need] amounts to human trafficking,” denounced Koning.

The Philippines is considered a good example to follow amongst sending countries, as it offers the best levels of protection for migrant domestic workers. But the remittances this South Asian country receives from its nationals working overseas (over US$28 billion in 2015) and its economic reliance on these revenues makes international pressure indispensable.

In such cases, explains Koning, what is required is “greater international cooperation aimed at compliance with international labour standards to improve rights and protection of migrant domestic workers and to avoid that wages and working conditions are ’traded away’ based on nationality and on the perception that domestic work is not considered as work,” a strategy that was shared at an ILO meeting in Madagascar, in April.


What no one would have imagined a decade ago

“Ten years ago, no one would have said this was going happen”, said Koning: a legal instrument with basic rights for a whole sector in expansion, legislative amendments and ratifications in 48 countries, mainly in Europe and the American continent (Latin America having pioneered the campaign at the end of the eighties), as well as in the south and east of Africa.

Numerous initiatives, such as the 12+12 campaign led by the ITUC and the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) or the IDWF’s My Fair Home campaign – a strategic alliance between NGOs, civil society, human rights and trade union organisations – all combined with the increased unionisation of the workers, are producing results.

“We are seeing significant changes, although a great deal remains to be done. There are too many millions of domestic workers who do not have rights like other workers. But the fact that many domestic workers have become trade union leaders, orators, activists, is heartening and a source of inspiration for the global trade union movement.”

One such example is Mexican Marcelina Bautista, general secretary of CONLACTRAHO, the confederation representing domestic workers in Latin America and the Caribbean, who is herself a former domestic worker.

“These women want real change, protection for the entire sector. And they are an example for others,” says Koning.

According to the ILO, improving the conditions in a sector that is so present, a sector that is growing and is dominated by women, will also contribute to significantly reducing gender inequalities.

A study by the Central Bank of the Philippines (Remittances, Migration, and their Economic Impact: Lessons from the Philippines) points, moreover, to the fundamental impact the wages sent by migrant domestic workers have on their households back home. In addition to reducing poverty levels, they contribute to increasing business initiatives and the schooling of their children, and, by so doing, reduce child labour.

Such are the reasons and motivations behind the resilience of domestic workers around the world.


This article has been translated from Spanish.