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Bad housekeeping: the plight of domestic workers


An African-American woman cleaning a window. by CDC/ Dawn Arlotta acquired from Public Health Image Library

The abuse and violence in this exploitative industry must stop, writes Kevin Redmayne.

In Colombo, the sweltering capital of Sri Lanka, the Domestic Workers Union is picketing outside the Supreme Court. Sarath Abrew, a high-ranking judge, has been accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid, fracturing her skull and leaving her for dead. The protesters are not only demanding justice, but also new laws to safeguard their rights. In an exploitative industry, this can’t be just another day – the violence has to stop.

Right now, there are 53 million people working as domestics in countries all over the globe, amounting to 1.7% of the world’s employed. Of this group, 83% are female, which means 1 in 13 wage-earning women is in domestic work. More worryingly, so are 17.2 million children, many too young to give informed consent.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that domestic workers earn less than 50% of the average salary of any particular nation. This means that workers in the developing world could earn a salary lower than $8,000 a year or, worse still, no salary at all. Job titles include housemaid, servant, cook, gardener, governess, babysitter or care-giver. We rarely use the term ‘slave’ but in many cases this is effectively what the workers are.

The ILO recently warned of the ‘invisibility’ of domestic work. The reality is much more damaging than poor pay and long hours. Many employees have no legal protection and are often given unlawful contracts, unfair terms and unethical job descriptions. They are perilously close to being victims of crime or destitution.

Half of all domestic workers have no limitation on the number of hours they can be called to work in a day; 45% have no entitlement to rest periods or paid annual leave. Most will subsist on zero-hour contracts, and work for wages that breach employment law. The practice of ‘payment in kind’ – that is, food or shelter in exchange for service – is still common. Aside from this, it is not unheard of for monthly payments to be delayed, deducted or missed, while unpaid overtime and the non-remuneration of standby periods continue unabated.

The dark side of all this is that domestic work can lead to slavery. Domestics fall prey to sex traffickers, pornographic industries, drug-running, servitude and imprisonment. The recent scandals involving the human rights abuses of migratory workers in Qatar show that forced labour is a real possibility. Beyond the big dangers of rape and physical violence are the more common practices of food-rationing, blackmail, surveillance, threat and intimidation. This low-level abuse goes unnoticed around the world and traps employees in a cycle of neglect.

In 2011 calls for industry regulation became louder. The ILO created the Convention on Domestic Workers 189 & Recommendation 201. The clauses put forward were an entitlement to a 24-hour rest period once a week, a minimum wage, a place to live and, finally, the right to receive a lawful contract. Presented in June that year, it was an important step in securing rights and promoting safety. Yet the fact it was ratified by only 16 states shows that work remains to be done.

Perhaps this is a time to reflect: in today’s globalized world the tourist industry is booming. Part of any holiday is being pampered, but the adventure comes at a cost. After we fly home, the maid is left continuing her rounds day and night. We often see domestic workers as victims of their own ignorance, but the truth is they are from the most vulnerable communities in the world. Many employed in the sector are migrants, escaping war or poverty; most will have little or no education; and all will have faced exclusion and discrimination. Inadequate legislation and unscrupulous employers mean the disaffection comes full circle.

However, domestic workers don’t just fluff our pillows; they work in care homes, hospitals, psychiatric units and orphanages. They provide for themselves, for their families and, of course, for us and the wider economy. The recent case in Sri Lanka shows they also become victims of crime.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is an adage we are all guilty of at one time or another, but it has a trickle-down effect. By not looking, we fail to see the harsh reality of the service sector in general. But shining a light on this ‘invisible’ industry should promote change. While the ILO convention may be overreaching, it is better than avoiding responsibility altogether. Transnational employment law is a way to stop the clock. It gives domestic workers a livelihood, but also a life outside of work.

Kevin Redmayne is a freelance journalist living and working in Britain. After a recent stint as a Public-Engagement Officer at Plan International, he has decided to follow his passion for writing and activism, and add his voice to the debate. More of his work can be found at: medium.com/@KevinRedmayne

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