On November 6, 2013, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University hosted the Protection Project Eighth Annual Symposium on the issue of trafficking in persons. The focus of this year’s symposium was the plight of domestic workers. In the course of four panel discussions, a plethora of experts shared basic statistics to illustrate the scope of the problem, highlighted particular aspects that place domestic workers in vulnerable situations, debated with whom the responsibility for addressing the problem lies, and offered suggestions and recommendations on what needs to be done.
Many would argue that human trafficking has in recent years, for better or worse, certainly become the issue du jour. News reports on the problem are now an everyday occurrence and the number of books, films, or TV shows addressing it have proliferated at a lightning speed. The common denominator in nearly all instances of attention, however, is the inevitable focus on sex trafficking. Although an estimated 53 million people are employed as domestic workers—over 80% of whom are women and young girls—trafficking of persons for the purpose of labour, specifically domestic work, rarely grabs the attention of the general public and therefore, as Tiffany Williams, an LGSW Campaign Coordinator at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, emphasized, the issue has for too long been ignored equally by media, students, activists, NGOs, and law enforcement agencies.
There are several reasons the often horrific situation of domestic workers has remained largely unnoticed and difficult to address.
- Domestic workers live and work in private homes, behind closed doors, and any great harm done to them remains invisible. It is important to note that even without the issue of trafficking, the situation of domestic workers needs to be addressed as the particularities of their no ordinary work place increase their vulnerability to abuse and suffering.
- Domestic workers are isolated. They are never off duty and therefore often have no social life. By becoming housecleaners and care takers in foreign lands, many women and young girls seemingly manage to contribute to those they left behind. At the same time, however, the same jobs that provide for their families also separate them from the ones they care most about. Feeling the pressure from home and being aware of their lack of rights, they quietly endure conditions far from ideal.
- Domestic work has historically been used as a form of social subordination, of women in general and minority women in particular. As Neha Misra, a Senior Specialist on Migration and Human Trafficking at the Solidarity Center, emphasized, migrant workers have historically deliberately been excluded from labour laws, but the case of domestic workers is particularly ignored because the problems are hidden. Consequently, domestic workers are kept as non-actors, as people with no political power who could do little to incur change.
- Domestic work has been and still is considered women’s work and as a result falls in the informal sector and is viewed as an industry of lesser respect. For example, Neha Misra indicated that 1 in 3 women in the Middle East and 1 in 4 women in Latin America are domestic workers. Domestic workers are regarded as non-persons who could easily become both sex and labour slaves.
Although at the symposium there seemed to be an agreement on the vulnerable position of domestic workers, a debate ensued when the aspect of responsibility was mentioned. Should origin or receiving countries bear the task of improving the situation of domestic workers?
Many of the panelists at the symposium exposed cultural aspects of certain receiving countries to depict the complexity of the issue. Indeed, the Middle East and the North African regions are with the highest demand for domestic workers and many of the states in those geographical areas are characterized as adhering to the kefala system. The kefala system reflects a form of sponsorship (guardianship) that requires domestic workers to become dependent on employers who are responsible for the workers’ visas and legal status. Such dependency places migrant labourers in vulnerable positions as employers often keep their passports and leave them with no option but to tolerate any abuse that accompanies their everyday existence.
While the states of the Persian Gulf are often attacked for the aforementioned kefala system that locks domestic workers in the control of employers, Neha Misra was quick to emphasize that the United States is not far behind with a similar system of work visas that tie workers to their employers even if the conditions are horrific. Tiffany Williams of the National Domestic Workers Alliance confirmed Ms. Misra’s statement and outlined employer-controlled visas (specifically in the United States) as an added layer of vulnerability for domestic workers.
Mr. Osama bin Abdullah Al-Absi, Chief Executive Officer of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority in the Kingdom of Bahrain, stressed that though the receiving countries are often charged with the responsibility to address and solve the problem, the problem does not really start when the domestic worker enters the destination country. He highlighted that often both the receiving family and the domestic worker endure irreversible damage when provided false information about each other by the middle men—the recruiting agencies in both receiving and origin countries. In response to an audience question, however, he pointed out that while the irreversible damage should certainly not be seen as equal, activists must not ignore one side of the equation.
The discussion on responsibility certainly highlighted that in order to comprehensively address the situation of domestic workers, instead of playing the blame game, both origin and destination countries must examine existing systems that repress domestic workers and implement changes that ensure domestic workers enjoy the same rights as other labourers.
An international attempt to recognize and address the plight of domestic workers is the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention (No 189). It was adopted in 2011 and entered into force on 5 September 2013. The goal of the convention is to ensure decent work for domestic workers. The convention is historic because it is the first international framework that addresses domestic work and exposes the social and economic contributions of domestic workers. At the least, the convention outlines basic standards for working conditions of domestic laborers and offers provisions for private employment agencies.
C-189 has so far been ratified by ten countries: Bolivia, Germany, Guyana, Italy, Mauritus, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay. It is important to note that even countries that have not ratified the convention have began to implement amendments to national legislature to address and incorporate the established international standards for domestic workers. For example, the United States has not ratified the convention and as one of the panelists bluntly indicated, “there is no chance in hell” that it will do so, but there have been promising actions by individual states, such as California, New York, and Hawaii, that have focused on establishing a domestic workers Bill of Rights.
ILO Convention 189, as well as the efforts at national and state levels, indicates that the plight of domestic workers will no longer be ignored. However, there is still much to be done in order for the problem to be properly addressed. At the international level, for example, a future goal would be to encourage more countries to ratify the convention and to make sure adequate institutions are put in place to implement the standards as outlined in C-189. The ultimate goal is to have the basic rights of domestic workers protected regardless of their origin or destination country. As Neha Misra argued, while existing bilateral agreements between origin and destination countries seem to address the issue, they ultimately do not work because the countries of origin are in a weak bargaining position and the receiving countries, if pressed, would simply move to another country of origin with less stricter laws.
At the state level Amy Mahoney of the International Organization for Migration emphasized the importance of focusing on reintegration efforts as well. Attempts to address the problem should not be concerned solely with what could be done before workers leave but also with what needs to be done when they come back. On that note, Tiffany Williams challenged the notion of victimhood, spoke about moving beyond survival, and underlined the value of survivors themselves “breaking the chain” and speaking for the millions of workers in the United States. I agree. Regarding domestic workers as victims implies that they are powerless, dependant, and unable to make it without support. We should instead see them as survivors—survivors who could adapt to the most inhospitable and dangerous environments, who could manage to grasp the value of life even when it is uncertain and painful, or maybe because it is uncertain and painful, and who are content to be alive. Worker-led mobilization efforts and survivor-led empowerment should therefore be integral to any state attempt to address the problem.
Lastly, at an individual level, the general population needs to realize that domestic work is work, often hazardous and undervalued, and the people who make sure the work is done deserve safe conditions, proper treatment, and most of all recognition. After all, the truth is that it is not the job itself that should be viewed as degrading; what reduces the status of domestic workers is the loss of independence and responsibility that has traditionally accompanied the work. To properly address the problem, therefore, the larger population needs to realize the importance and value of domestic workers who do “the work that makes all other work possible”.
Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.