April 28, 2010


I wanted to make a new life and try my luck so that my kids would have a different life than their mother….  But I was mistreated by my employers. I began work at 5 a.m. and sometimes finished around 2 or 3 a.m. I never got a day off. The door was always locked, I could never go out alone. I slept in the dining room.
My full salary was deducted [to pay initial recruitment fees] for six and a half months. If I didn’t finish [a task quickly], my employer would hit me … she usually shouted and screamed at me. Once when I was hanging clothes, I had a black eye and my neighbor asked me what happened. My employer had beaten me. That evening the police came and arrested my employers.
—Ati K., Indonesian domestic worker, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 12, 2010
Domestic work is one of the oldest and most important occupations for millions of workers around the world….  Domestic work is essential for the economy outside the household to function and, yet, it is undervalued….  It is poorly regulated because it is not regarded as “real” work….  
Domestic workers’ conditions do not improve unless there is concerted action to improve the legislative framework….  Studies confirm that well-crafted regulatory mechanisms with a suitable enforcement machinery make an important difference in the everyday lives of domestic workers – and they convey the message that domestic workers are indeed workers who deserve both rights and respect.
—Conclusions from a global survey of laws and practices on domestic work, International Labor Organization, 2009[1]

On International Workers’ Day, a holiday celebrated on May 1 in many countries around the world as an opportunity to take rest and celebrate the achievements of the labor movement, millions of domestic workers, the vast majority of them women and girls will remain hard at work. Often underpaid and overworked, domestic workers perform services essential for many households to function and to allow others to participate in the formal economy. However, hidden in private homes, their work remains invisible throughout the year, and many governments have yet to accord them full recognition or equal legal protection under labor laws.

Several countries across the Middle East and Asia host significant numbers of migrant domestic workers, ranging from 196,000 in Singapore to approximately 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia. Increased reporting and awareness about abuse against these workers has resulted in active policy debates and in some cases change. Building upon six years of research, this report surveys the patterns of labor, immigration, and criminal justice reforms in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Singapore, and Malaysia, highlighting both best practices and continuing gaps.

Millions of Asian and African women, many from socially and economically disadvantaged circumstances, migrate to work as domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia. For many, this employment is one of their few opportunities to earn money to build a house, pay for medical and school fees, and provide basic necessities for their families in their home countries. Many report decent working conditions and are able to provide financial support to their families.

However, safety and financial opportunity are a matter of luck and by no means guaranteed. In many host countries, the combination of significant gaps in labor laws, visa systems that give employers immense control over workers, and racism against an often darker-skinned “servant” class has contributed to exploitative working conditions for migrant domestic workers. In addition to demanding excessively long hours with no days off for little or no pay, employers often take the passports of migrant domestic workers and confine them in their homes.  In some cases, migrant domestic workers endure slavery-like conditions including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and food deprivation, sometimes continuing for months or years. In the worst cases, migrant domestic workers lose their lives or are trapped in situations of forced labor or trafficking.

In recent years, increased mobilization by migrants’, women’s, and human rights organizations, support from trade unions, attention from international bodies like the International Labor Organization (ILO), and high-profile media exposure have intensified pressure for government action, including labor and immigration reforms.

The governments discussed in this report have begun to introduce initiatives to improve the treatment of domestic workers or to prevent and respond to abuse. But change has been slow and incremental, and many of the most critical reforms lag behind, such as including domestic workers in labor laws, divesting the employer of power over the domestic worker’s immigration status, and creating stronger oversight over recruitment processes. Reforms often encounter stiff resistance from employers fearing higher costs and fewer entitlements, labor brokers profiting off a poorly-regulated system, and government officials who view migrants as a security threat.

Improving protections for domestic work has become an issue of public debate and reform not only at national and regional levels, but also globally. Although domestic workers have rights under existing international labor conventions, these standards do not address the unique circumstances of domestic work, such as employment in private homes, or provide adequate guidance for guaranteeing them access to decent employment conditions. In recognition of the importance of protecting a sector that is a major source of employment and that has been historically neglected and undervalued, members of the ILO will begin formal discussions in June 2010 on a possible new global instrument, potentially a binding international treaty, to establish international labor standards for domestic work.

Many governments have argued that it is impossible to monitor private homes as a workplace, citing violations of employers’ privacy and the difficulty in tracking conditions such as hours of work.  Yet labor legislation in Hong Kong and South Africa has set positive examples: domestic workers have the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, a weekly day of rest, maternity leave, and paid annual leave. While the domestic workers in these countries are not immune from abuse, they have legal remedies available, unlike their counterparts elsewhere. Enjoying relative freedom to form associations and trade unions, many of these domestic workers have greater awareness of their rights, an ability to negotiate better working conditions, and avenues for reporting labor exploitation.

Of the countries surveyed in this report, Jordan has taken the most significant strides in strengthening legal protections for domestic workers. It is the only one that has amended its labor law to include domestic workers, guaranteeing protections such as monthly payment of salaries into a bank account, a weekly day of rest, paid annual and sick leave, and a ten-hour workday. However, the provisions for domestic workers still fall short of providing rights equal to those guaranteed to other workers. For example, domestic workers cannot leave the workplace without permission from their employer – even when they are off-duty – and are entitled to a minimum of only eight hours of continuous rest at night. In addition, the test of these legal reforms will be the government’s success in publicizing the new requirements and enforcing compliance.

Most other labor-receiving countries have relied on introducing standard employment contracts to regulate terms and conditions of employment. Such contracts represent an improvement over having no formalized work agreement or minimum standards, but have much weaker protections than most labor laws. For example, Singapore’s standard contract does not require a weekly day off, instead giving employers and workers the option of negotiating one to four days off per month or to receive payment instead of taking the day off. Given workers’ fear of losing their jobs and uneven bargaining power, most are not in a position to demand time off. The United Arab Emirates’ standard contract fails to provide for any rest days at all. Neither the UAE nor Singapore’s contract establishes rights to overtime pay or limits to hours of work.

Immigration systems that tie a migrant domestic worker’s immigration status to her employer contribute significantly to the unequal power relationship between employers and workers and can enable abuse. Employers can have domestic workers repatriated at will or withhold consent from a worker who wishes to transfer to another employer. Reform of such systems, however, is particularly sensitive in countries of employment with large migrant populations given host governments’ fears that relaxing immigration controls could increase irregular migration. Despite a growing consensus that the current immigration “sponsorship” system in the Middle East contributes to domestic servitude and slavery-like conditions, change in this area has come at a glacial pace. Employers’ stereotypes of foreign women as promiscuous or naïve continue to be used to justify paternalistic and restrictive policies and practice that give the employers control over domestic workers’ lives.

In addition, governments have not dedicated significant resources to create monitoring mechanisms to detect cases of deception, exploitation, and abuse of domestic workers, or to take steps to make labor and criminal justice systems more accessible and responsive. Improving treatment of domestic workers requires effective complaint and enforcement measures, such as wide dissemination of information about rights and responsibilities for employers and employees, random inspections, and strong penalties for violations. 

Singapore stands out as a country that has vigorously and successfully prosecuted employers and recruiters who physically abused domestic workers. Most other countries discussed here have mixed records. Some employers receive tough punishments but numerous obstacles continue to stand in the way of such victories. For example, systems for filing complaints are often out of reach of domestic workers trapped in private homes and unable to speak the local language. For cases that do reach the attention of the authorities, legal proceedings often stretch over years, while victims typically wait in overcrowded shelters, unable  to work. The lengthy waits and uncertain outcomes cause many domestic workers to withdraw their complaints or negotiate financial settlements so they can return home quickly. In other cases, such as in Saudi Arabia, domestic workers must often defend themselves from counter-allegations of theft, witchcraft, and adultery.

Some of the most encouraging changes in recent years have been the emergence of migrants’ rights movements. Organizations promoting domestic workers’ rights are growing in size, diversity, and sophistication. Many informal networks have formalized their operations, gained funding, and established services such as shelters for workers in crisis, helpdesks at airports and shopping malls, and training courses to help domestic workers use their time abroad to gain skills for upward economic mobility. In some cases, these organizations have been able to institute working relationships with relevant government bodies such as officials who oversee labor disputes or deportation proceedings.

This report is based on ongoing research and advocacy engagement on migrant domestic workers by Human Rights Watch and draws upon our work in Bahrain, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates.


[1]International Labor Organization, Decent Work for Domestic Workers, Report IV (1), International Labour Conference, 99th Session 2010 (Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009), p. 94.