April 28, 2010


Societies in this region … are supported thoroughly and function smoothly largely through the hard work and resourcefulness of migrants….  Unfortunately, all too often many migrants to this and other regions experience discrimination, abuse, exploitation and other human rights violations.
 The situation of migrant domestic workers is of particular concern because their isolation in private homes makes them even more vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual violence…. Some are held in prolonged detention after they escape abusive employers, and may be unable to obtain access to judicial recourse and effective remedies for their plight.
—Navi Pillay, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, April 19, 2010

Migration for Domestic Work in Asia and the Middle East

The number of women migrants has increased significantly over the last three decades. They now comprise approximately half of the estimated 214 million international migrants worldwide.[2]   The feminization of international labor migration is particularly pronounced in those migrating from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, where for several years, national-level estimates indicate that women comprise between 50 and 76 percent of documented international migrants.[3] The majority of these women migrate for domestic work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. 

Both labor-sending countries and labor-receiving countries rely heavily on migrant domestic workers. Labor-receiving countries have addressed labor shortages and inadequate child care alternatives by creating special immigration schemes to bring in live-in migrant domestic workers to meet households’ need for child care, house cleaning services, and elder care. For labor-sending countries, remittances constitute an important source of income for poor households. In 2008, international migrants sent home an estimated US$444 billion, of which US$338 billion went to developing countries.[4]  Labor-sending countries often actively promote out-migration to relieve underemployment and to generate foreign exchange. For example, although data disaggregating the contribution of domestic workers is not available, Filipino migrants sent home US$19 billion in 2008, 11.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.[5]

Accurate estimates are difficult, especially as some migration takes place outside of formal channels and is not picked up by official statistics. However, according to estimates Human Rights Watch has collected from labor-sending and labor-receiving governments and figures released by governments to the media, there are approximately 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia; 660,000 in Kuwait; 200,000 in Lebanon; 300,000 in Malaysia; and 196,000 in Singapore.[6]  In some countries, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Singapore, migrant domestic workers may comprise close to one quarter of the overall migrant population.

Human Rights Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers

Many migrant domestic workers enjoy decent work conditions and positive migration experiences. However, the failure to properly regulate paid domestic work facilitates egregious abuse and exploitation, and means domestic workers who encounter such abuse have few or no means for seeking redress.

Migrant domestic workers routinely encounter exploitative working conditions, including excessively long working hours, lack of rest days or rest periods, poor living accommodations, and restrictions on freedom of movement and association. They typically earn wages that are a fraction of the prevailing minimum wage, and nonpayment of salaries, for months or years at a time, is the most frequent complaint reported to authorities and nongovernmental organizations. There is little monitoring for abuse—exclusion from national labor protections often means there are no inspections of migrant domestic workers’ workplaces, and many governments prohibit labor inspectors from entering private homes.

Except for Jordan, the labor codes in the countries surveyed in this report specifically exclude domestic workers from key labor protections afforded to most other categories of workers. Such rights include guarantees of overtime pay, weekly rest days, limits to working hours, paid leave, fair termination of contracts, benefits, and workers’ compensation. This exclusion denies domestic workers equal protection under the law and has a discriminatory impact on women and girls, who constitute the vast majority of this category of workers.

The recruitment and placement of migrant domestic workers remains poorly regulated and monitored. In their home countries, recruitment brokers may give migrant domestic workers inadequate or misleading information about their employment abroad, or charge them excessive recruitment fees, especially to those migrating to Singapore or Malaysia. In order to pay these fees, migrants typically have few options but to borrow money at exorbitant interest rates from local moneylenders or to receive a “loan” from the employment agency which they must repay by turning over the first six to ten months of their salary once employed. This debt burden makes it difficult for migrant women to report workplace abuse for fear of losing their jobs and the resulting inability to pay off their debts. In labor-receiving countries, recruitment agencies may engage in abusive practices such as substituting the employment contracts signed by workers in their home countries with different contracts that have poorer terms, coercing domestic workers to stay in exploitative employment situations, charging excessive transfer fees, and in some cases, physical or sexual violence.

Immigration policies affect the extent to which migrant domestic workers are at risk of abuse. Migrant domestic workers typically arrive in Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and other countries on two-year employment visas in which their immigration status is linked to their employer. As the immigration sponsor, the employer can typically have the domestic worker repatriated at will, provide or withhold consent on whether she can change jobs, and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, obstruct her ability to leave the country. In practice, termination of employment often means the worker is obliged to leave the country immediately with no opportunity to seek redress for abuses or settlement of unpaid wages.

This system gives employers immense control over domestic workers, and can leave domestic workers forced to stay in jobs with abusive conditions and unable to demand fair treatment. Migrant domestic workers who leave their employment without their employer’s consent lose their legal status, making them subject to immigration penalties and deportation. The widespread practice of employers withholding domestic workers’ passports contributes to their precarious situation. Domestic workers, fearing deportation and anxious to repay recruitment debts and provide money for expenses at home may endure exploitative conditions in order to keep their employment and residency in the host country.

Domestic workers’ isolation in private homes also places them at heightened risk of ill-treatment, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, food deprivation, and forced confinement. In the worst cases, domestic workers may become trapped in situations of forced labor, trafficking, or slavery, or they die from murder, botched escape attempts, or suicide.

Restrictions on freedom of movement, language barriers, lack of information, and their vulnerable immigration status impose formidable barriers to migrant domestic workers’ access to the police or other government authorities. In some cases, police may dismiss complaints and return domestic workers complaining of abuse to their employers. Employers may deter domestic workers from approaching the police by filing or threatening spurious counter-accusations of theft or running away. Human Rights Watch has documented patterns in which the combination of poorly conducted investigations, lengthy trials, and weak enforcement of judgments combine to pressure victims of violence into accepting small financial settlements, a return ticket home, or nothing at all.

Some labor-sending countries with large numbers of migrant domestic workers, particularly Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, operate emergency shelters in their missions abroad for migrant domestic workers with complaints of unpaid wages, poor working conditions, or physical abuse. Countries with fewer resources or lower numbers of migrants, such as Nepal and Ethiopia, may be unable to establish such shelters as needed. The Philippines typically meets the highest standards in terms of shelter operations, whereas others often have extremely overcrowded conditions where a small staff without enough relevant training are totally overwhelmed with the high numbers of complaints each day. Domestic workers in these shelters usually have little information about their case or their options, and get stuck in these shelters for months. Regardless of resources, officials face many obstacles to resolving these cases given the labor and immigration frameworks of host countries.

Shelters run by the host government, especially in the context of the anti-migrant security-driven framework of immigration policies, are more akin to detention centers than shelters. They have strict entry requirements, domestic workers cannot leave voluntarily, and it typically serves as a holding space before repatriation.

Estimating the prevalence of abuse is difficult given the lack of reporting mechanisms, the private nature of work, the lack of legal protections, and restrictions on domestic workers’ freedom of movement. There are many indications, however, that human rights violations are widespread. For example, Indonesian authorities reported more than two thousand complaints from domestic workers returning from the Middle East in the last three months of 2009.[7] In Saudi Arabia, the Indonesian, Sri Lankan, and Philippine embassies handle thousands of complaints of unpaid wages, physical or sexual abuse, or poor working conditions each year.[8] In many other cases, abuses are never reported at all.

[2]United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), United Nations' Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2008 Revision, (New York: UNDESA, 2008), http://esa.un.org/migration (accessed January 20, 2010).

[3]Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), OFW Global Presence: A Compendium of Overseas Employment Statistics 2006 (Manila: POEA, 2006), http://www.poea.gov.ph/stats/2006Stats.pdf (accessed January 20, 2010); Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), Estimated Stock of Sri Lankan Overseas Contract Workers by Country 2006 (Colombo: SLBFE, 2006), http://www.slbfe.lk/feb/statistics/statis9.pdf (accessed May 29, 2008); and Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers:  Their Vulnerabilities and New Initiatives for the Protection of Their Rights (Jakarta:  Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, 2003) p. 9.

[4] World Bank, “World Bank's Migration and Development Brief 11,” Migration and Remittance Trends 2009 (Washington D.C.: World Bank, 2009), http://go.worldbank.org/5YMRR0VW80> (accessed December 15, 2009).

[5]World Bank, “Remittances Data, November 2009,” Migration and Development Brief 11 (Washington DC: World Bank, 2009).

[6] Committee of Supply (Speech 4) by Hawazi Daipi, senior parliamentary secretary for manpower and health, Singapore, March 12, 2010.

[7] “Thousands Of Indonesian Workers In Mid East Not Paid,” Bernama, January 22, 2010.

[8] Human Rights Watch, As if I am not Human: Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in  Saudi Arabia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2008), p. 23.