Millions of women leave their country to be the sole breadwinner for their families to work as migrant domestic workers abroad. With few employment opportunities at home, this is often a choice of last resort. Their wages help to clothe, feed, and educate their children while they care for and raise other children.
While many migrant domestic workers realize their hopes for decent salaries and good working conditions, others face a far bleaker reality.
Viewed as unpaid “women’s work” for centuries, domestic work remains one of the most undervalued and least regulated forms of employment. Many countries still do not conceive of it as “real” work and often exclude paid domestic workers from protections offered by their labor laws. Consequently, many of the world’s estimated 67.1 million domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, are given very few rights or protections.
The fact that domestic workers are hidden behind closed doors, living in their employer’s home, compounds the abuses inherent in this system. Employers can easily overwork them, and often do. Some migrant domestic workers recounted to Human Rights Watch how they were forced to work, in extreme cases, up to 21 hours a day with no rest and no day off. Many said their employers did not pay them their full salaries, either paying them less than promised, delaying or withholding their salaries to force them to continue to work in abusive conditions, or denying payment altogether.
Many said their employers confiscated their phones and restricted their communication. Some said their employers gave them little food, scraps left over from family meals, or starved them as punishment for “mistakes” in their work. Women also described sleeping in kitchens, storage rooms, or open living rooms. Many said they were humiliated, insulted, and shouted at on a daily basis. Some said their employers slapped, beat, or burned them. Several spoke of sexual abuse: harassment, assaults, even rape.
June 16—International Domestic Workers Day—commemorates the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the landmark International Labour Organization (ILO) convention on decent work for domestic workers. The treaty was the first to codify the principle that domestic workers should be accorded equal treatment with other workers and given adequate protections against violence and abuse. Twenty-two countries have ratified the treaty, and many more have adopted labor law reforms improving protections for domestic workers.