Girls and women do most of the world’s domestic work, as they always have done. The ILO estimates that domestic work is the most common form of child labour for girls.(1) Many adolescent girls like Noraida migrate in search of a living that allows them to support themselves and send some money to their families back home. While remittances can help alleviate poverty, many domestic workers and NGOs report hardship, abuse and exploitation.
In Asia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia send most of the region’s domestic workers. Women make up between 60 and 80 per cent of registered migrants from these countries,(2) most of them domestic workers. Since 1998, some 400,000 Indonesians have migrated to other countries each year.(3)
The demand for domestic workers comes largely from countries in the Middle East, Western Europe, North America and wealthier Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. As of the mid-2000s, some 6.3 million Asian migrants, many of them domestic workers, were legally working and residing in the more developed countries in East and South-east Asia; another 1.2 million undocumented migrants are alleged to be in the region.(4) In the Middle East, the countries of the Persian Gulf also employ millions of immigrant women in domestic work. No fewer than one million work in low-level occupations, including domestic work, in Saudi Arabia alone.(5)
Domestic labour migration is also common in Latin America, where it makes up to 60 per cent of overall internal and transnational migration. Young women from countries like Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru leave for more developed countries like Argentina and Chile. Many also head for North America and Western Europe.(6) Female immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America make up most of the domestic workforce in the US. In Central and West Africa, girls who are trafficked across borders often end up as domestic workers.
The pre-departure stage can be fraught with abuses.(7) Girls and women may be held in recruitment centres for months at a time, under heavy security and poor conditions.
In the case of adolescent girls, labour agencies usually falsify the ages on their travel documents in order to take them out of the country. Domestic migrant workers are often misinformed about the migration process; may have their salaries withheld in a form of “debt bondage” to repay fees related to their recruitment and travel, and may be duped as to the type of work and conditions to which they are going. Once they arrive, many are also denied information about their rights or where to turn for help with abusive employers. Given the nature of their work in the private domain, and away from the public eye, they are especially vulnerable to exploitation. They are usually not covered by labour legislation that could protect them in cases of abuse, non-payment, or the arbitrary withholding of wages. In addition, they are often forbidden to write letters or have communication with their families back home, have their passports taken away from them by labour agencies or employersaand face threats if they attempt to escape. If they do escape, they do not know how to manage without money, documents or friends to assist them in a city that is not their own.(8) Many experience abuse, including sexual violence. They are at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV infection.
To improve the situation of domestic workers, some governments have adopted new laws and policies. The Philippines, for instance, has developed a programme for overseas workers that includes a mandatory pre-departure orientation on rights and health issues. Other countries, in particular in South Asia, have begun to strengthen consulates to protect the rights of overseas workers and supervise private employment agencies. This is of particular benefit for domestic workers in abusive situations. Domestic workers themselves have established their own networks and in some cases trade unions have allowed domestic workers to associate for collective bargaining of fair employment contracts. Both sending and receiving countries have put in place mechanisms to regulate and monitor the activities of recruitment agencies. Civil society organisations in various parts of the world advocate for the rights of domestic migrant workers and assist them in filing complaintsand address cases of abuse.
Countries receiving housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers from abroad must act to protect their human rights. For example, countries should extend labour laws specifically to cover domestic workers. Countries could also require employment agencies placing domestic workers in private homes to provide a written contract between employers and employees setting out pay, hours and other basic conditions of the job. Employees should be provided information on their entitlements under the law and avenues of recourse. In this way, both employers and employees would have transparency and abuses could be avoided.