Millions of women and girls around the world turn to domestic work as one of the few options available to them in order to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of guaranteeing their ability to work with dignity and freedom from violence, governments have systematically denied them key labor protections extended to other workers. Domestic workers, often making extraordinary sacrifices to support their families, are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world.

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Abuses against domestic workers, typically taking place in private homes and hidden from the public eye, have garnered increased attention in recent years. The long list of abuses committed by employers and labor agents includes:

  • physical, psychological, and sexual abuse;
  • forced confinement in the workplace;
  • food deprivation;
  • non-payment of wages; and
  • excessively long working hours with no rest days.
Poorly regulated recruitment practices shift most costs to migrant domestic workers, leaving them heavily indebted. In the worst situations, women and girls are trapped in situations of forced labor or have been trafficked into forced domestic work in conditions akin to slavery.

Since 2001, Human Rights Watch has conducted research on abuses against domestic workers originating from or working in El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

This research has focused primarily on two groups especially at risk of abuse:

  • migrant domestic workers and
  • child domestic workers.

Increased rural poverty, inequitable trade policies, and economic crises have pushed many women and girls to migrate as domestic workers abroad. Girls are often pushed into domestic work by poor access to education, violence in the home, and a general acceptance of child labor in many countries.

Governments’ responses to abuses against domestic workers have largely been piecemeal and reactive. Most countries exclude domestic workers from key labor protections afforded to other workers. Such rights include guarantees of a minimum wage, overtime pay, rest days, annual leave, fair termination of contracts, benefits, and workers’ compensation. Isolation in private homes, a deep power imbalance, and the obstacles to prosecuting abusive employers successfully often put domestic workers at risk of an appalling array of criminal abuses.

Another critical area for reform is the recruitment process and monitoring of labor agencies. Lack of information, deception, and coercion in the recruitment process can lead to exploitation or trafficking of domestic workers. In the case of migrant domestic workers, labor agencies have subsidized low fees for employers by shifting most recruitment costs to workers, leaving them heavily indebted.

Some governments are making progress in protecting domestic workers. Labor legislation in Hong Kong sets a positive example: domestic workers have equal rights to all labor protections extended to other workers and have formed trade unions to further advocate for their rights.

Labor legislation should be complemented by criminal laws allowing for successful prosecution of offenses such as physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, forced labor, forced confinement, and trafficking in persons. In increasing by 1.5 times the normal penalties for crimes like assault or forced confinement if they are committed against domestic workers, Singapore has rightly acknowledged the particular risks faced by these workers.

Governments can also make progress by accrediting and rigorously monitoring labor agencies, introducing a standard contract that ensures standard labor protections including a weekly day of rest, and by requiring employers to pay most of the costs associated with recruitment and placement.