This year Germany became the ninth country in the world and second in Europe to ratify ILO Convention 189. In a country with an estimated 700,000 domestic workers, what does it mean in terms of realizing their rights for decent work conditions and pay? Ban Ying, our member in Germany talked to us about their assistance work for a specific group of migrant domestic workers, domestic workers for diplomats (DWDs,) that lie outside the purview of protection.

Can you tell us briefly about the work of Ban Ying?

Ban-Ying is the Thai term for "House of Women". Ban Ying was founded in 1988 and our focus is to work against trafficking in human beings and violence in the migration process. Ban Ying runs two projects: a counseling and coordination center and a shelter for women who have been victims of trafficking in persons. Both projects are run in Berlin, Germany.

The counseling and coordination center of Ban Ying provides support to victims of trafficking in persons at two levels: firstly, the practical level where the center offers counseling and psycho-social support to victims; secondly, the more theoretical, research, educational and political level.

At the practical level, the center offers counseling to people who are either directly or potentially affected by trafficking. Our counseling service is geared towards the individual needs of each woman. If the woman affected is a witness to a crime related to trafficking, the assistance also entails accompanying her to court. If the woman wishes to or is required to return to her country of origin, we assist her in planning her return. In our experience, this assistance helps reduce the danger of re-victimization to a great degree. Counseling is free of charge and a lawyer is available for legal advice.

In its more public sphere the center conducts research and runs educational and training programs, as well as awareness-raising campaigns, networking and advocacy for public policy initiatives. The advocacy work of Ban Ying is inspired by a gender and human rights approach.

This two level support-structure of Ban Ying results in a combination of theory and praxis and entails a key element for our work: on the one side, it allows us to gather information on specific needs of women who have been victims of trafficking in persons as well as appropriate working focuses; on the other side, it provides us with permanent feedback on the outcomes of our work.  

How did you decide on your focus on Domestic Workers for Diplomats (DWD)? Can you tell us briefly about the situation of DWDs in Germany?

Our work with domestic workers working in diplomatic households developed strongly when, around twelve years ago, the embassies moved from Bonn to Berlin. Since Ban Ying has a focus on women coming from South East Asia and many domestic workers working for diplomats come from this region (according to the German Protocol Department, in 2012 almost half of all the domestic workers working for diplomats came from the Philippines and Indonesia), the structures were available within Ban Ying to address this issue. At present, Ban Ying is the most specialized NGO in Germany in this field.

Our interest in working with these women was driven by the situation of extreme inequality existing in their work relationships. Domestic workers in diplomatic households are usually migrant women. While the domestic worker has an immigration status that is directly linked to her employer, the employer actually has quite a different, almost untouchable status. The employer enjoys diplomatic immunity on the basis of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This convention ensures that diplomats and also their private residences are protected by immunity, making it effectively impossible for the domestic workers to take any legal steps against their employers when problems arise. In most countries they cannot sue them for unpaid wages, and the perpetrators cannot be taken to criminal court for assaults or be sued for pain and suffering even in cases of trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation. Theoretically, the justice system of the diplomat’s sending state would be responsible, but we do not know of a single case where a domestic worker was successful in asserting her rights in the country of origin of her employer.

In short, the German situation is the following:

If a diplomat wants to bring a domestic worker to Germany, he/she has to inform his/her embassy, which makes the contact to the German protocol department. If this authority authorizes the hiring, the process for issuing the visa starts. Responsible for this process are the embassy and the protocol department, which means that the domestic worker is obligated to hand her passport to the employer. She is not involved in the visa issuing process at all.

The visa the domestic worker gets is absolutely tied to the employer. This means that her right to live in Germany is absolutely bonded to her working relationship to that specific diplomat. Even if there is abuse, even if there is mistreatment: the domestic worker will not be allowed to change her employer. You can imagine what this means in terms of power relationship.

Even though she is in Germany, the woman does not have the opportunity to meet the German authorities. In practical terms, the only person she has contact with in Germany is her employer (and his/her family). Nevertheless, there has been an improvement in the German system in this matter: now, when after one year the domestic worker needs to renew her visa she has to go personally to the protocol department to have an interview and to pick up the document. But we do not really know what the protocol department does when mistreatments are reported during this interview. In our opinion, this interview should have the meaning of exploring if everything is going well in the working relationship. And if abuse or mistreatment is detected, the protocol department should be able to make some options available for the domestic worker. These options should consider the chance to change employer, in order to make it possible for her to stay in Germany.   

What support services do you provide for the DWDs and other migrant workers? How do you provide language support in 27-languages? Where do you get that skill? Do you employ migrant workers?

Persons that have been victims of trafficking and are experiencing situations of abuse or exploitation can always come to us for counseling. On the one hand, we have open counseling for women from South East Asia every Wednesday. Women can come without making a prior appointment. Counseling is done by our social worker and the Tagalog or the Thai language mediator, who are both part of our team. On Wednesdays there is also a lawyer available for providing legal counseling. On the other hand, persons that have been victims of human trafficking can come to us for counseling from Monday to Thursday, for which we ask them to previously make an appointment by phone or by email. If the victim speaks a language that we do not have in house we contact a language mediator from our network, prioritizing women with a migration background.

So far we have provided counseling to women from 53 countries and four continents in their native languages. We also offer low-threshold group sessions and regular information meetings in Thai and Tagalog, where we provide information on legal and social issues with the assistance of external experts.

You mentioned earlier about protocol department as the only department that DWDs come in contact with.  How do you work with the protocol department to get access to DWDs?

Reaching out to domestic workers working for diplomats is a big challenge for counseling centers. These women live in the confines of the diplomatic household and do not have much contact with the outside world. Since they don’t have a regular visa status, they do not deal with the Aliens Department like other migrant workers would do, but only with the protocol department. So, this department should play a pivotal role in detecting problems in the working conditions of these persons. During the last years, Ban Ying has been collaborating with the protocol department trying to find ways to enhance the information channels for domestic workers. For this collaboration we rely on the readiness of the person in charge at the protocol department, which changes from time to time. Although we have had better and more difficult experiences during this time, generally speaking it is always a challenge for us to get a committed response from that department. Anyhow, as a result of this collaboration a brochure explaining the legal situation and containing the rights of domestic workers working in diplomatic households was printed. The idea is that this brochure is handed over to the domestic workers in their countries of origin before entering Germany. Also, last year the protocol department together with Ban Ying organized an information session for domestic workers working for diplomats. Regrettably, this meeting had a pretty low attendance given the large number of domestic workers that are registered in Berlin. We assume that those who managed to attend are those who do not have problems in leaving the household, so our challenge now is to improve our outreach. In this sense, one good practice aiming to reach a big number of domestic workers, which has been implemented in other countries like the US, is to make their attendance an obligation for the diplomat. We have shared this good practice with the German protocol department. We hope they will also acknowledge the effectiveness of this measure.

Can you tell us about your networking and collaboration with like-minded organizations ?  What are the good practices that you find within your network that have been helpful for your work?

There are NGO´s working in this field in other countries like Austria, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Collaborating with these organizations is pivotal to our work, since it allows us to compare standards and it provides us with guidelines for our advocacy work. There is also a focus set on this subject inside the office of the Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings of the OSCE. In June I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop organized by them in Kiev. This was the second workshop the OSCE organized on this subject (the first one took place in Geneva one year ago) and the idea was to bring together protocol departments and NGOs from the different OSCE member states, in order to get them to share experiences and good practices. This workshop was very inspiring for me, as I got interesting insights on the situation in other countries and I realized how much there is to be done in the German system. Unfortunately nobody from the German protocol department attended the workshop, even though they had been invited.

Among the good practices presented in that workshop I would especially mention the mediation system recently implemented in Switzerland. If the Swiss protocol department finds out signs of trouble in the working conditions, it invites the parties to an interview in the presence of a mediator, who will try to help them in finding a solution. If a crime situation (human trafficking or other) is detected, the mediator will refer the case to the NGO network. Similarly, when the Austrian protocol department detects signs of mistreatment or abuse during an interview with the domestic worker, they contact the specialized NGOs who can provide her with counselling. One subject that was discussed in-depth during the workshop was the legal possibility of changing an employer when the domestic worker is experiencing bad working conditions. There was a consensus among the participants that this option is crucial for providing the domestic worker with a way out of abusive situations. Inexplicably, the German protocol department has an absolute prohibition on this subject: even if a domestic worker experiences situations of abuse, exploitation or mistreatment, she will not be allowed to change her employer. She will just have to leave the country.

What is the focus of advocacy for Ban Ying both at international as well as national level?

The situation of domestic workers working for diplomats is a relevant subject for our advocacy work. Through our collaboration with the protocol department some basic standards have been established. Sometimes - only if there is a substantial necessity and the victim specifically agrees- we have informed the media about our cases. This has proven to be an effective method to put some pressure on the perpetrators. For example, in March 2013 the case of an Indonesian domestic worker working for a diplomat of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Berlin (case Dewi Ratnasari) came to a good end, when the diplomat finally agreed to pay €35.000 to the woman. Other advocacy subjects we are focusing on are the Access to Justice for undocumented workers who have been victims of trafficking in human beings, as well as the ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers and its international standards in this field.

At the national level, Ban Ying participates in different networks existing in Berlin as well as in other places. We are part of the Commission for trafficking in persons (Fachkommission Menschenhandel), which brings together all relevant actors in Berlin. This includes the counseling centers, police, the involved ministries, etc.  We are also part of the Working group for Trafficking in Women (Arbeitskreis Frauenhandel), which brings together counseling centers at a Berlin level. Additionally, Ban Ying is a member of the nationwide activist coordination group combating trafficking in women and violence against women in the process of migration (KOK Büro), which  brings together counseling centers at a national level.

Internationally, Ban Ying was selected to be a member of the EU civil society platform against trafficking in persons, which was launched on May 31 in Brussels. We are curious about the effective impact this platform will perform in relation to EU public policies. 

Can you tell us about your activities around C189 in Germany or Europe? What message would you like to put forward pertaining to right of DWD and other migrant domestic workers?

Our advocacy work related to the ILO Convention 189 is ongoing. During the last months we have attended different panels regarding this subject. For example, the Berlin-Brandenburg representative office for the UN and the German ILO office invited us to comment on the extent to which the Convention can be used for domestic workers working for diplomats. We think that this discussion can be held with both a legal and a more political approach. Even though on the legal sphere there are pro and contra arguments, we think that once there has been international consensus that domestic work has to be further protected and socially recognized, there is no valid reason to let one specific group of domestic workers outside the scope of protection. Article 16 of the Convention states that all domestic workers, either by themselves or through a representative, have effective access to courts, tribunals or other dispute resolution mechanisms under conditions that are not less favorable than those available to workers generally. We see this as a generally applicable principle. In that sense, article 26 (4) of Recommendation 201, which refers to domestic workers working for employers with diplomatic immunity, sets the basis for advocating for decent work and access to justice for all domestic workers, without any exceptions.