Essential but excluded: Rights protections for domestic workers are long overdue
Statement by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women on International Domestic Workers Day
Domestic workers make crucial contributions to households and the global economy, yet continue to suffer from multiple vulnerabilities caused by the lack of recognition and respect for their work, inhumane labour migration regimes, rogue recruitment practices, and gender-based discrimination and violence.
On this International Domestic Workers Day, we highlight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant domestic workers in the past two years and their exclusion from much-needed social protections. We call for measures to improve their working and living conditions as well as access to labour rights and government support.
In our recently published research on reintegration of women migrant (domestic) workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka who had returned from the Middle East, the vast majority reported a host of human and labour rights violations but very limited government assistance, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bangladeshi domestic workers told our partners that they saw their workload increase exponentially. Most did not receive any wages for three to nine months, partly because their employers were not receiving their salaries either. Job contracts were not renewed for some, while others were asked by employers to ‘escape’ so that employers did not have to think about contract extension and legal procedures. In Sri Lanka and Nepal, some women shared that they had to pay for their return flights and quarantine costs during the pandemic, or repay recruitment agencies, which greatly increased their financial precarity. Across all four countries, women were not aware of, or could not access, any state social security programmes. In India, one woman said ‘I am not aware of any government support for returned migrants. You are the first people to search for me and come here to ask about all these things’. Many were also stigmatised as migrants and suspected of bringing the disease to their communities.
In Latin America, migrant domestic workers spoke about high workloads and mistreatment by employers. One Venezuelan woman in Brazil told our partners ‘They [employers] didn’t let me eat, and I had to bring my own food from home. […] They think that because we’re going through a hard time, they can treat us like dogs.’ Many women shared that experiences of gender-based violence increased due to being stuck at home with their abusers and the limited capacity of support services during lockdowns.
In the UK, one of our partners spoke to an undocumented migrant domestic worker who was forced to continue working, and risk her health, because she had no right to social protections due to her migration status. Several women could only rely on their agents, employers, or communities for financial support. In France, a Filipina domestic worker said she was worried about her family back home because she did not work for three months during the lockdowns. In addition to the financial hardship, some women had to deal with racist attitudes. One Filipina domestic worker in the UK said: ‘I received racism because Covid was discovered in China. So some people said, “you’re an Asian and you are the reason why we have a pandemic”’.
What is evident and has been abundantly documented is that domestic workers are viewed by many as an essential-but-disposable category of workers. As far as the rhetoric of 'leaving no one behind' goes, we need to ask how we can bring about a more positive and swift change in the lives of these essential workers.
Given these realities, today we join our members, partners, and allies in calling for:
- Ratification of ILO Convention C189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers: Eleven years after the signing of the Convention, decent work for domestic workers and particularly migrant domestic workers remains elusive. Governments must ratify and implement its provisions.
- Inclusion of (migrant) domestic workers within the folds of social protection: The pandemic is evidence that a well-functioning social protection system is essential for people and the economy. Governments must ensure that everyone, regardless of occupation or migration status, receives adequate social protections.
- Recognition, valuation, and redistribution of unpaid care work: Unpaid care work has historically been performed by women and, while it is essential for all life, it is inherently undervalued. With ageing societies in developed countries and reduced spending on childcare, elderly care, and healthcare, it is likely that demands for care work will increase. Governments must combat gender stereotypes and support the redistribution of care work, while also recognising and providing fair compensation to those who are engaged in it.
- Facilitation and promotion of the self-organisation of (migrant) domestic workers: Domestic workers themselves are best placed to inform civil society, experts, and governments about the policies that would benefit them and would best protect their rights. Governments and civil society must facilitate and promote the self-organisation and self-advocacy by (migrant) domestic workers and remove any barriers to it.