Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Noties for quotations Notes for quotations
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 3 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 Selling Hope and Stealing Dreams:
Trafficking in Women and the Exploitation of Domestic Workers


Toil and Tears: The Exploitation of Domestic Workers

Toil and Tears

Most adult domestic workers(70) fall into the category of voluntary economic migrant workers. For millions of women, the global demand for their labour has resulted in a better standard of living, greater opportunities for their children and, in some cases, escape from bad or abusive marriages. But many domestic workers toil in intolerable conditions, are exploited, held in virtual captivity and physically and psychologically abused.

Reports of abuse and exploitation come from all over the world. Current demand for domestic labour indicates that it will continue to grow in tandem with international migration. This only serves to underscore the urgency of extending human and labour rights protections to domestic workers.

Asian domestic workers primarily migrate to the Middle East, North America, Western Europe and to wealthier East Asian countries. The Philippines alone has sent approximately 1.5 million overseas foreign workers throughout the Asian region-the majority of whom are female domestic workers.(71) In the 1990s, 84 per cent of all migrants from Sri Lanka to the Middle East were women, most of whom were domestic workers.(72) The ILO estimates that in 2003 there were 200,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong (SAR) and 155,000 in Malaysia.(73) Saudi Arabia hosts at least one million women working in low-level occupations who come from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka-the great majority domestic workers.(74) In 2003, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) granted an average of 300 visas every day-mostly for women travelling from South and South-East Asia-with an average of three domestic workers per UAE household.(75) In Singapore, one in every seven households employs a live-in migrant worker.(76)

In Latin America, women from poorer countries (Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru) often go to work in the homes of families living in better-off neighbouring countries (such as Argentina and Chile). Domestic workers represent up to 60 per cent of all internal and international migrants from Latin America-with many bound for Europe and North America.(77) In Spain, 70 per cent of working migrant women-mostly from South America-arrive to fill domestic and caretaking positions.(78) Women from sub-Saharan Africa have also entered this global market: These include Ethiopians bound for Lebanon and Cape Verdeans and Ethiopians headed for Italy.(79)


As the ILO states, "domestic workers experience a degree of vulnerability that is unparalleled to that of other workers".(80) The fact that domestic work takes place in the private sphere is what makes workers especially vulnerable to exploitation. Many remain outside the protection of labour legislation, leaving them little recourse in cases of abuse, non-payment or the arbitrary withholding of wages. One ILO study undertaken in 65 countries revealed that only 19 countries had specific laws or regulations dealing with domestic work.(81)

Migrant domestic workers are often isolated from other employees, friends or family. Many cannot communicate in the language of the host country, are undocumented or lack adequate contracts. Even when documented, their status might be contingent on their employer-again, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Under the sponsorship (kafala) system in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), for example, employers hold passports and all official documents until the date of departure, rendering the domestic worker completely dependent.(82) In addition, in some Arab and Asian countries, domestic workers are indebted to labour agencies for the costs of recruitment, travel and processing fees. These agencies often withhold payment for several months following arrival. If domestic workers break their contract-even in cases of abuse-they are often forced to forfeit their paycheque and, for those who can afford it, pay their own airfare home.(83) Others have no option but to run away and become undocumented migrants.

Most domestic workers who suffer severe human rights violations remain with their employers for fear of deportation or loss of legal status. They fear losing the jobs that sustain their families at home and worry that employers and recruitment agents will "blacklist" them from future employment.

"I was not allowed to go outside..I felt like I was in jail. It was truly imprisonment... I could only see the outside world when I hung clothes to dry."

- Domestic worker in Singapore


Employers have been accused of psychological abuse; physical assault and battery; sexual violence; limiting freedom of movement by withholding passports or forbidding employees to leave the house; prohibiting communication with strangers or neighbours; imposing extremely long working hours (14 to 19 hours per day with no rest days); withholding pay; offering only low wages; and denying privacy and access to medical facilities.

The most extreme forms of exploitation and abuse have resulted in severe injury and even death. The ILO charges that "(m)any, including migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Philippines and Indonesia, have died in unclear circumstances".(84) In Singapore, between 1999 and 2005, an estimated 147 domestic workers died-most by falling out of buildings or committing suicide.(85) In 2004, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) reported on cases of violent assaults and deaths of domestic workers in Lebanon, Kuwait, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.(86) In the latter, some 19,000 domestic workers fled from their employers in 2000.(87) In 2005, an NGO in Israel, Kav La'Oved, testified in the case of a Moldovan caregiver who was physically assaulted when she tried to a take a day off and threatened with further violence when she demanded full pay for her services.(88) Various organizations have documented abuse in other countries that receive large numbers of foreign domestic workers.(89) In 2005, Global Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union reported abuses involving UN diplomats and staff.(90) Among their recommendations, the reiteration of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants calls for countries to review their visa sponsorship systems.(91) Abusive employers are rarely prosecuted and convicted-although in Hong Kong (SAR) and Singapore several cases of severe ill treatment have made it to court.(92)


Domestic migrant workers face an increased risk of HIV infection and are vulnerable to violations of their reproductive rights. For example, in Sri Lanka, where migrants often undergo testing, almost half of all reported HIV cases occurred among domestic workers who had returned from the Middle East.(93) In a 2002 survey of domestic workers in Hong Kong (SAR), interviewees reported various sexual and reproductive health problems that revealed limited access to health information and services, as well as the stigma attached to seeking them. These included genito-urinary infections (44 per cent), pelvic inflammatory disorder (17 per cent), unintended pregnancy (13 per cent) and abortion (10 per cent).(94) The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants states that some employers prevent domestic workers from seeing a doctor when they are ill. Others have domestic workers tested for HIV without their consent and then fire them if tests turn out positive.(95)

In Singapore, immigration policies prohibit the marriage of foreign domestic workers to citizens. Female domestic workers are also obliged to undergo medical exams every six months, including pregnancy and HIV tests, whereas other foreign workers do so only once every two years. Those who are pregnant often face dismissal and deportation.(96)

A 2003 Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health directive prohibits pregnant domestic workers from accessing health services unless accompanied by the father. This puts women whose husbands are abroad, or those who have become pregnant as a result of rape, in a very precarious situation. Many are reluctant to seek maternal health services altogether. Women who are unaccompanied by the fathers and in need of emergency care are required to be held in "specially designated rooms" to prevent escape.(97)


Recruitment agencies are springing up as fast as demand. Singapore and the Philippines, for example, are home to an astounding 600 and 1,000 agencies (respectively) devoted to the recruitment or deployment of overseas workers, many of whom are domestic workers.(98) The Indonesian Government has registered approximately 400 agencies that recruit mainly women from rural villages.(99) But in many countries, agencies too often remain outside the purview of regulations and national laws.

A number of otherwise credible recruiting agencies discriminate against women migrants or practice extortion. A year 2000 survey of Ethiopian domestic workers revealed that they would pay recruiters up to US$1,186 for a job in Dubai when the average GDP per capita in their home country was only US$130.(100) Reports from other countries also indicate that many domestic workers work months without a salary in order to pay fees.(101)

Contracts between recruitment agencies and employers sometimes include penalties should workers leave employment prematurely-one reason why many remain in abusive situations.(102) In Singapore, employers are required to pay a hefty security bond that they forfeit if a domestic worker runs away, a major factor behind the close surveillance of household employees.(103) Human Rights Watch maintains that some recruitment organizations often perpetuate abuse or fail to protect domestic workers at risk. In one case, domestic workers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, reported that when they sought help from their recruitment agency, they were verbally abused, slapped, blamed and encouraged to return to abusive situations.(104) In Singapore, several recruitment agencies were found to be negligent when abused domestic workers turned to them for assistance. Domestic workers in Malaysia and Singapore also report abuse during their recruitment and stay in pre-departure training centres. Workers are sometimes confined for months at a time in cramped quarters with little food and are threatened with physical and sexual assault.(105)

Domestic work should be valued and treated like any other job, with proper laws and regulations.


Domestic work should be valued and treated like any other job, with proper laws and regulations. As the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants noted in 2004, domestic work should be regarded as "a worthy occupation".(106) Recommended measures include bilateral labour agreements between sending and receiving countries that protect workers' rights through recruitment, training and job placement. They should also include standard contracts specifying hours of work and rest; payment and compensation for injuries; safeguards to freedom of association; movement and religion; the right to health; and the right to vote in country-of-origin elections. Recruitment agencies should be monitored, detention and training facilities inspected and complaint mechanisms established for domestic workers who suffer violence.(107) Orientation sessions for migrant women prior to departure from their home countries should cover information regarding logistical, health and human rights issues. Experts have found that migrant women who receive pre-departure information are more likely to avoid abusive situations.(108)

Measures to assist domestic workers include emergency hotlines, temporary shelters and effective complaint and prosecution mechanisms for employer and labour agency violations. Allowing domestic workers to switch employers without penalty or loss of legal status in the event of insurmountable problems or abuse is especially critical.

Various governments and civil society organizations are working to improve the human rights and treatment of domestic workers. The Hong Kong (SAR) labour laws guarantee a minimum wage, maternity leave, a weekly day off, public holidays and paid vacation time.(109) The governments of Malaysia and the Philippines have negotiated a standard contract for Filipina domestic workers covering similar protections.(110) In 2003, with UNIFEM assistance, Jordan developed a mandatory contract that also requires employers to pay travel and related recruitment costs. Recruitment agencies that fail to satisfy these minimum standards can lose their licenses or face fines. In addition, a new law enables the Ministry of Labour to oversee agencies and to monitor compliance with regulations and human rights protections.(111)

Singapore raised the legal age for domestic workers to 23; increased prosecutions; established an obligatory orientation programme for domestic workers and employers; provides a telephone information service that instructs workers of their rights and procedures for changing employers; and is developing an accreditation system to regulate recruitment agencies.(112) Turkey recently introduced permits for foreign workers that are not tied to a specific employer. This makes it easier for domestic workers to leave exploitative and violent households.(113)

Ensuring that domestic workers have recourse to assistance and justice is critically important. In 2003, Bahrain launched a national plan to support abused foreign workers that also provides for a telephone hotline and shelters.(114) The embassies of Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka all maintain mechanisms for fielding and addressing labour complaints, including offering assistance to secure legal advice and medical care.(115) Hong Kong (SAR) and Italy both allow women domestic workers to organize into migrant unions. This affords them labour protection and an organized base from which to fight for their rights.(116)

In recent decades, national, regional and inter┬Čnational networks of civil society organizations working towards the human rights of domestic workers have also emerged in various parts of the world (see also Chapter 5). The Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility (CARAM) works in the Asia region to empower migrant workers. In 2002, representatives of domestic workers, trade unions, governments, NGOs and international organizations from 24 countries endorsed the Colombo Declaration of the Regional Summit on Foreign Migrant Domestic Workers. As a follow-up, CARAM launched a two-year domestic workers campaign. Its aim is to disseminate information about human rights and health issues, strengthen legal protections and increase access to sexual and reproductive health services.(117) CARAM and its partner NGOs have also recently called for immediate action to address vulnerability to HIV amongst mobile populations, including the elimination of mandatory HIV testing and deportation and the protection of the rights of HIV-positive migrants to health care and treatment.(118)

In Europe, the RESPECT network of migrant domestic workers campaigns for the rights of women and men working in EU households.(119) In Costa Rica, the Household Worker's Association (ASTRADOMES)-an affiliate of the Latin American and Caribbean Female Household Workers Confederation-provides migrant domestic workers with support services, including legal and social guidance, shelters, and access to sexual and reproductive health services.(120) In the United States, the "Break the Chain Campaign" brings together a coalition of concerned organizations fighting for the rights of trafficking victims and exploited domestic workers who have been "enslaved in the homes they clean".(121)

* * *

Today, the world has an opportunity to right the wrongs of "migration gone bad" and assist some of the world's most marginalized and exploited workers: trafficking victims and migrant domestic workers. To do so, however, will require multi-lateral, global, regional and national efforts to implement and enforce international and national human rights standards relating to migration. Only then will the world put a halt to some of the most egregious and hidden human right abuses ever perpetrated. Slavery is alive and well in the 21st century. The battle to end it must be decisive.