April 28, 2010


Governments have been engaging more in rhetoric about protection of migrant domestic workers than in reform. While there has been progress in several areas, for example, the formalization of working conditions in standard contracts and greater cooperation with civil society groups advocating for domestic workers’ rights, many underlying forms of discrimination have yet to be addressed. These include major gaps in labor protections, restrictive immigration sponsorship policies that establish incentives for abusive behavior, and prevailing social norms that justify practices such as confining domestic workers to the workplace.

Governments also have yet to ensure a strong and consistent response to abuse of migrant domestic workers by the criminal justice system. This includes consideration of expedited processes given constraints introduced by precarious immigration status, police training, and provision of language interpretation services and legal aid.

One of the most promising elements of promoting domestic workers’ rights arises out of civil society and workers’ groups mobilizing to identify abuses, provide services, influence social attitudes, and demand comprehensive legal protections. Governments in host countries should create greater space for civil society including by removing obstacles to the legal registration of associations and trade unions and ensuring freedom from excessive government control and interference.

Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Singapore, and Malaysia have been engaged in active debates about domestic workers’ rights and the types of protections that should be guaranteed by governments. While reforms that promote respect for domestic workers’ human rights in these countries have been slow and hard-fought, some—such as Singapore’s response to criminal abuse of migrant domestic workers—represent significant advancements that could serve as models to be adopted in neighboring countries.  Slow movement in other areas, such as changes in immigration policy, point to the challenges ahead for the consideration of comprehensive reform.

The ILO’s recognition of domestic work as an undervalued sector requiring more specific and comprehensive protections, and the global discussions taking place among governments, employers, and workers in June 2010 at the annual International Labor Conference on whether to adopt a binding international convention on domestic work demonstrate the extent to which a once invisible issue has finally caught public attention. Governments not only in the Middle East and Asia, but across the world should seize the opportunity to rectify gaps and weaknesses in national laws that leave domestic workers at high risk of abuse and exploitation and adopt international standards that ensure full respect for their rights.