Some 40 domestic workers from 17 countries across North and South America and the Caribbean shared organizing tactics, hammered out resolutions and participated in Solidarity Center training on gender-based violence at work at a recent conference in São Paulo, Brazil.
The conference is one of a series of regional planning meetings domestic workers around the world are holding in advance of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) congress November 16–18 in South Africa. Domestic workers from all regions will bring recommendations to the IDWF Congress. Latin American domestic workers voted to recommend the IDWF adopt resolutions involving safety and health, strengthening leadership of Afro-descendent domestic workers where they are a majority and supporting LGBT domestic workers who face double discrimination on the job.
Delegates also nominated new leadership for the region, Andrea Morales from Nicaragua and Carmen Britez of Argentina, both former domestic workers.
In one of the most powerful moments of the conference, migrant domestic workers and Afro-descendent domestic workers shared their strategies during a panel on racial equality and, in the process, “restored dignity back to themselves and to the work they do,” says Adriana Paz, IDWF Latin America regional coordinator.
“Most domestic workers labor in modern slavery conditions without being paid but instead just provided with board and room—just like in slavery times,” says Paz, who participated in the conference. “Added to this lack of rights and freedoms, Afro-descendant domestic workers face the structural violence inflicted on them because of the intersection of their race, class and gender.”
In Brazil, 70 percent of domestic workers are Afro-descendent as are a majority of domestic workers in Colombia, who also are often internal migrants, moving from rural areas to large cities for employment.
Steps to Ensure Brazil Enforces Domestic Worker Standard
Brazil’s ratification of International Labor Organization Convention (ILO) 189 on domestic workers’ rights earlier this year led to discussions about how Brazilian domestic workers could ensure the government is in compliance with the convention. Domestic workers from countries that have ratified Convention 189 say the first step is to push for creation of employer organizations so domestic workers have a collective employer with whom to negotiate contracts.
Enforcement of domestic workers’ rights is difficult in Brazil because the constitution does not allow authorities to “inspect” private homes, a challenge Argentine domestic workers say they have addressed by sending out mobile vans in neighborhoods where they find employers with domestic workers. From the vans, union staff and labor ministry representatives discuss with employers how to formalize workers and have paperwork ready for employers and specific materials for domestic workers as well.
Conference participants also took part in a Solidarity Center workshop on the upcoming International Labor Conference (ILC), where representatives from labor, employers and governments will negotiate a draft convention addressing gender-based violence at work. Five domestic workers from Latin America will attend the May 28–June 8 ILC, all of whom were active in the international campaign for passage of Convention 189 in 2011.
Domestic workers in the Africa, Asia and European regions held regional conferences earlier this year.
Hundreds of domestic workers rallied in front of the Kenya Parliament in Nairobi today, lobbying legislators to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The effort is part of a larger campaign to improve wages and working conditions for the country’s domestic workers by the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) as well as to help build momentum for a global movement for domestic workers.
“It is amazing. It shows [the] power of the domestic workers in Kenya,” said Africa Regional Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), Vicky Kanyoka.
Convention 189 established the first global standards for the more than 50 million domestic workers worldwide, addressing wages, working conditions, benefits, labor brokers and child labor. Although the convention went into force in 2013, it has been ratified by only 23 countries. Of these, only two African countries have ratified the convention: South Africa and Mauritius.
Domestic workers are some of the world’s most vulnerable workers, comprising a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment. In Kenya, domestic workers have suffered pay below minimum wage, long working hours, physical abuse, discrimination and lack of job security. More recently, domestic workers migrating to jobs in the Middle East from the Mombasa area, in an effort to escape poverty wages at home, have been preyed upon by unscrupulous labor brokers and employers.
KUDHEIHA—a Solidarity Center partner—has stepped up its political advocacy on behalf of domestic workers with the support of the Solidarity Center in recent years. Legislative changes favorable to domestic workers included an increase in their minimum wage in 2015 as well as an increase last year in the minimum wage from 10,955 to 12,825.72 Kenyan shillings ($108 to $126) per month.
KUDHEIHA’s current push for government ratification of Convention 189 is an effort to secure additional recognition, rights and standards for Kenyan domestic workers working inside and outside the country.
The Solidarity Center works with domestic workers and other organizations that represent them around the world, including in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, South Africa and Sri Lanka.
Migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China, must live with their employers, according to a court ruling this week that rejected a case by a Philippine migrant worker who argued the rule violates Hong Kong SAR’s Bill of Rights and other basic laws.
Expressing disappointment in the court’s decision, the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) vowed to continue to demand that “the government revise regulations that prohibit living (outside the employer’s home) and develop concrete policies to ensure that migrant domestic workers who live with their employers enjoy reasonable living conditions.”
Among the 400,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, SAR 335,500 are migrant domestic workers. Isolated in homes, they often are subject to physical and verbal abuse and subjected to overwork and poor living conditions. Some 52 million domestic workers are employed in countries where they are completely excluded from national labor laws.
Although Hong Kong, SAR laws cover the working conditions of domestic workers, FADWU urged the government to enforce the laws.
“The government should also take the responsibility to ensure enforcement and to conduct inspections to ensure that migrant domestic workers’ rights to privacy, self-improvement, rest time and private life are protected, and also to ensure that migrant domestic workers have safe working environments, equality and dignity,” the union says in a statement.
On Sunday, hundreds of migrant domestic workers rallied at Hong Kong SAR’s City Hall to demand an end to violence against women, and called on the government to reform regulations covering migrant workers to ensure they work regular hours, receive decent food and sleeping quarters.
After spending seven years in Jordan as a domestic worker, Suryanti sought to return home to Indonesia to see her family. But her original employer, whom she left under duress, had confiscated her passport and would not give it back, leaving Suryanti in legal limbo as she tried to leave the country.
Securing a new passport required months of court filings and, ultimately, four-and-a-half-months in a detention center in Amman before Suryanti was allowed to leave the country. While confined, officials took her mobile phone, and she had no means to initiate communication with anyone.
In fact, some migrant workers who are jailed for not paying visa overstay fines in Jordan end up in detention for years. A survey found some 55 percent of migrant workers in detention were held between three weeks and four months, 18 percent for five to 11 months, and 5 percent for between one and two years.
“I didn’t know how long I would be there,” Suryanti says, describing her months in detention. “I was frightened.”
Jordan Domestic Workers Network
With few legal rights in Jordan, domestic workers like Suryanti, 32, have been trying to improve the lives of migrant domestic workers with education, awareness training and legal aid through the Jordan Domestic Workers Network. Some 400 domestic workers have benefited from the network’s services, including 180 members from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Suryanti, one of the founding members, says she has helped some 200 Indonesian migrant domestic workers take part in network activities, a task she undertook “because we have the same problems.”
Formed in 2014, the network is the first organization to bring together migrant domestic workers in the region, where countries typically prohibit migrant workers from forming or joining formal trade unions and negotiating with employers to improve wages and working conditions. Through the network’s partnership with the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), migrant workers also are connected with IDWF affiliates in some countries of origin. A key draw for domestic workers is the legal clinic with the Adalah Center for Human Rights Studies.
Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries operate under a kafala system, in which worker visas are tied to a particular employer, essentially inhibiting workers from reporting abuse and denying them the ability to change jobs. Employment contracts can only be terminated if both parties agree, if the duration of the contract has expired, or if the worker dies or is no longer capable of working due to a disease or disability certified by a medical authority. In practice, this means workers seeking to leave abusive employers often cannot get their permission and so are forced to seek employment elsewhere, without their passports.
Further, employers are responsible for annually renewing the work and residency permits of their employees, yet migrant workers are required to pay fines—$64 per month, nearly half the monthly salary of many workers—when employers do not renew the permits and they expire.
“Almost always, the original employer keeps our passport,” Suryanti says, speaking from Jakarta, where she now lives. “I don’t know why the original employer didn’t give us our passport because a passport is our right.”
Migrant Domestic Workers Vulnerable to Abuse on the Job
Migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and elsewhere not only are at risk of having their passports confiscated by employers, but often endure overwork and physical abuse, isolated in their employers’ homes.
A first-ever nationwide survey of Indonesian migrant workers by the World Bank gives a glimpse into the working conditions of all migrant domestic workers in the Middle East. The 2017 survey found some 26 percent of Indonesian migrant domestic workers in the region endure long working hours, 52 percent do not receive any days off, and 88 percent are not paid for overtime work. Suryanti says she left her first employer’s house after three months because in addition to cleaning the house, she was forced to clean the houses of the employer’s mother and sister, and was never allowed to rest.
“They always make me work, work, work, but you know, I am a human,” she says.
Between 440,000 and 540,000 migrants work in Jordan, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). More than 9 million Indonesians work abroad—nearly 7 percent of Indonesia’s total labor force (only China and the Philippines send more workers abroad). Roughly 40 percent are domestic workers and caregivers, and each year this predominantly female migrant workforce contributes 51 percent of total remittances sent to Indonesia.
Migrant workers also are at risk when they connect with unscrupulous labor brokers who make false promises about wages and working conditions. Suryanti says a labor broker in Indonesia told she would get a job abroad working in an office for $250 a month. Instead, she was forced to toil as a domestic worker for $150 a month. “I didn’t know I would be domestic worker,” she says.
Suryanti ultimately worked for several employers, most of whom abused and overworked her, and often would not pay her.
Despite her struggles, Suryanti remained active in the network, assisting domestic workers whenever possible. She attended English classes to improve her mastery of the language to better assist other domestic workers, and joined a training on care giving with migrant domestic workers from the Philippines to improve her work skills.
Now working as a cook and translator for an employee of a Middle Eastern embassy in the Indonesian capital, Suryanti is connecting with migrant workers and the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SMBI), where she plans to continue her efforts ensuring those working in isolation have the power of solidarity.