Lack of job protections, combined with the invisibility of their work, means many domestic workers toil long hours in unsafe conditions without a minimum wage or access to health care, sick leave or pensions. In Cambodia, domestic workers, who are not recognized as workers under national labor law or protected by Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN) agreements, are pushing their government to guarantee minimum labor standards.
Nearly 100 domestic workers rallied recently in Phnom Penh in support of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The convention, which mandates regular working hours, fair pay and access to social benefit programs, is an important international standard for domestic workers who seek decent work. The Association of Cambodian Domestic Workers (ACDW), the Cambodian Domestic Workers Network (CDWN) and the Solidarity Center jointly organized the event to celebrate International Domestic Workers’ Day on June 16.
The domestic workers’ unions also have debuted a documentary that examines issues arising from domestic workers’ precarious job status, with workers telling their own stories. For example, Hang Sothea, 47 and divorced, is the mother of eight children. To support her family, she has cleaned houses since 2010, working 180 hours for two employers each month—for a total wage of $170.
Another domestic worker featured in the video, Sok Rathana, 19, has been working as a domestic worker for two years while she attends high school. Explaining how she followed her mother into the profession she says: “I think I’m not good enough to do other jobs, but I can do most of the house work.” Rathana receives $70 a month for her work.
A recent survey of Cambodian domestic workers underscores how lack of legal protection can lead to exploitation for domestic workers. Of the 600 workers interviewed, 60 percent make less than $50 a month and 83 percent report being uninsured. Many say they are forced to work overtime. Even among workers who report having asked for overtime, 18 percent say they never received compensation for those hours. The nonprofit Center for Policy Studies conducted the survey, with Solidarity Center support.
Through organizations like ACDW, CDWN and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), which coordinates domestic workers globally to push for passage of Convention 189, Cambodian domestic workers have been petitioning the government for formal recognition of their rights. They say ratification of Convention 189 is a necessary first step toward covering the gaps in Cambodia labor laws and regional agreements that have deprived domestic workers of their worker rights.
Sushila Rana and Roja Maya Limbu spoke at the founding congress of the domestic workers’ union in Lebanon in January 2015. Credit: IDWF
The two woman helped found the domestic workers’ union in Lebanon in January 2015.
“This is a serious violation of basic human rights and (the International Labor Organization’s) core conventions on the right to organize and on freedom of association,” says Myrtle Witbooi, IDWF president. “We also call on the government of Lebanon to observe and abide by Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which ensures the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention.”
Migrant Workers Exploited, Have Few Rights
Migrant workers to the Middle East are rarely protected by labor laws and generally denied the ability to exercise fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, according to a recent report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon commonly report non-payment of wages, forced confinement, employers’ refusal to provide time off, and verbal and physical abuse.
Like most migrant workers around the world, many are forced to go into debt to pay excessive fees to labor brokers to obtain the jobs. Once in the country, they are governed by the repressive kafala system, which ties a domestic workers’ visa and work permit to one employer. Kafala results in situations where employers have unchecked control over migrant workers, exposing the latter to greater risk of exploitation and abuse.
Freedom of movement for the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is restricted by employers who take workers’ passports and laws that limit their access to public places like restaurants, unless accompanied by their employer.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report said that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were dying of unnatural causes at a rate of one per week. Most of the deaths were attributed to suicide — many of the victims were falling from buildings while apparently trying to escape their employers.
Some 70 countries around the world have taken action to advance decent work for domestic workers in the five years since the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 189, the standard covering domestic worker rights.
The ILO passed Convention 189 on June 16, 2011, after a global coalition of domestic workers, led by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), mobilized tens of thousands of workers in a campaign for recognition of the workplace rights of domestic workers. Following passage of the standard, workers mark June 16 as International Domestic Workers Day.
Most recently, Morocco passed a law covering gaps in coverage for domestic workers. The bill, approved May 31 by the country’s House of Representatives, sets the minimum age for domestic work at 18 years and raises salaries to 60 percent of the minimum wage provided in other employment sectors. The bill allows for a five-year transitional period in which those between ages 16 years and 18 years can perform domestic work, providing they have written and signed permission from their legal guardians.
Both the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) and the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) praised the law for ending child labor, which they called a form of slavery.
‘I Work from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Six Days a Week’
Some 53 million workers labor in households around the world, often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse. Guire, an Ivory Coast migrant domestic worker in Rabat, Morocco, is among them. Guire, a mother of four children who has worked two years for her employer, toils long hours for low pay and says her employer treats her poorly. (We are using first names only to protect the workers.)
“I work from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., six days week,” says Guire, a domestic worker in Morocco. Credit: Solidarity Center/Imane Zaghloul
“I work from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., six days week,” says Guire, 41, in an interview with Solidarity Center staff in Morocco. “The work is really hard and I sleep in the living room on a sofa.” Guire says when she became sick, her employer did not provide her with medicine and she has no way to protest her treatment.
Amma, 32, a domestic worker from the Ivory Coast who also traveled to Morocco for domestic work, says employer requires her to “do everything.”
“I do housework, cooking, gardening, take care of the children,” says Amma. She says she is forced to sleep in the garage, is given little to eat and is regularly disparaged. “I receive insults like, ‘You are an animal,’” she says.
Since 2011, 22 countries have ratified the convention on domestic workers, although Morocco is not one of them. Neither Guire nor Amma were aware of the new legislation covering domestic workers, but as Amma says: “I demand respect because we are human beings, and if we come here it is to work, not beg.”
As part of this project we held a focus group with ten Bangladeshi women migrant domestic workers in Jordan, together with our partners from Solidarity Center. (Op-Ed by Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women)
Afro-Colombian domestic workers, historically among the most marginalized workers in the country, are increasingly joining together to improve their working conditions and educate lawmakers and the public about their rights as workers.
“Today, it is a breakthrough that Afro-Colombian women are being empowered and raising awareness of the need to organize, to establish a collective space in which to be a social dialogue to claim their labor rights and interests,” writes Javier Arenas Bergaño at the Centro Atenciόn Laboral, a pro-bono legal organization in Colombia.
In Colombia, where some 750,000 of the roughly 1 million domestic workers are women, Afro-Colombian domestic workers especially have suffered discrimination, due to lack of access to education, health care and other services and because they are treated unequally in the job market and at the workplace.
Through the Union of Domestic Service Workers (UTRASD), the first-ever union in Colombia created entirely by Afro-descendant women in 2013, domestic workers are making their voices heard. A year after the union formed, Colombia ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) standard covering domestic workers (Convention 189), which provides a framework for the country’s domestic workers to pursue their rights on the job.
Led by María Roa, a former domestic worker and founder of Let’s Talk about Domestic Workers, UTRASD was founded with the support of two Colombian nongovernmental organizations, Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) and Corporación Carabantú, and the Solidarity Center.
As Bergaño points out, by joining together to secure the same basic rights as those available to other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation and clear information on the terms and conditions of employment, domestic workers reclaim their rightful place as full participants in democratic society.
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