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Tens of thousands of girls in El Salvador work as domestics, a form of labor that makes them particularly vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual harassment, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.

The 35-page report, “No Rest: Abuses Against Child Domestics in El Salvador,” called on the Salvadoran government to include domestic workers, who are almost exclusively girls and young women, in its program to address hazardous child labor.

Girls as young as nine work as domestics in El Salvador and may labor 12 hours or more, up to six days a week, for wages of $40 to $100 a month. They are particularly vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual harassment from members of the household in which they work.

“For girls, this is the biggest child labor problem in El Salvador,” said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “The challenge is to get labor officials to see domestic employment as real work with real risks.”

Over 60 percent of girls reported physical or psychological mistreatment—including sexual harassment—from their employers, according to a 2002 study of El Salvador by the International Labor Organization’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor.

Many girls working as domestics are not able to continue their education. They typically drop out from school between the ages of 15 and 17, most commonly because their work hours conflict with the school day or because of school fees and other education-related expenses. Others are able to attend night classes, but traveling to and from school at night involves increased risks to their safety.

The Salvadoran labor code excludes domestics from many of the most basic labor rights, notably the eight-hour workday and the 44-hour work week guaranteed other workers. Domestics commonly receive wages that are lower than the minimum wages in other sectors of employment. The exclusion of all domestic workers from these rights denies them equal protection of the law and has a disproportionate impact on girls and women.

Domestic work is the largest employment category for girls under 16 worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). In El Salvador, 95 percent of the estimated 21,500 domestics aged 14 to 19 are girls and women.

The total number of child domestics—including those aged 13 or under—is probably much higher, but precise data are not available. Because domestic work takes place in private households, those who perform this labor are more difficult to track than other workers in the informal sector.

But Salvadoran government officials often deny that children, particularly those under the minimum employment age of 14, work in domestic service in large numbers.

El Salvador is the only Central American country to participate in an ILO Time-Bound Program, an initiative to eliminate the worst forms of child labor within a period of five to 10 years. The program provides children with education and training in an effort to give them realistic alternatives to working in hazardous occupations. An ILO study on work in domestic service concluded that it was among the worst forms of child labor, but the Salvadoran government has not included domestic labor in its Time-Bound Program.

Human Rights Watch called for the inclusion of domestic service in El Salvador’s Time-Bound Program and urged the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor to enforce existing labor laws limiting the hours children may work. The Ministry of Education should ensure children’s right to a free education through the ninth grade and should sanction schools that illegally levy school fees, Human Rights Watch also said.

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