Skip to main content

In Malang, Indonesia, prospective domestic workers clean the facilities of their training center prior to migrating for employment in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. © 2006 Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
(Jakarta) – Domestic workers face a wide range of grave abuses and labor exploitation, including physical and sexual abuse, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, denial of food and health care and excessive working hours with no rest days, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today.

Governments typically exclude domestic workers from standard labor protections and fail to monitor recruitment practices that impose heavy debt burdens or misinform the workers about their jobs.

“Instead of guaranteeing domestic workers’ ability to work with dignity and freedom from violence, governments have systematically denied them key labor protections extended to other workers,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Migrants and children are especially at risk of abuse.”

The 93-page report, “Swept Under the Rug: Abuses Against Domestic Workers Around the World,” synthesizes Human Rights Watch research since 2001 on abuses against women and child 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.

“Millions of women and girls turn to domestic work as one of the few economic opportunities available to them,” said Varia. “Abuses often take place in private homes and are totally hidden from the public eye.”

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.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that more girls under 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labor. In Indonesia, the ILO estimates there are nearly 700,000 child domestic workers, while in El Salvador more than 20,000 girls and women between the ages of 14 and 19 are domestic workers.

Exploitative working conditions often make domestic labor one of the worst forms of child labor.

Human Rights Watch said that the numbers of women migrants has increased significantly over the last three decades, and they now comprise approximately half of the estimated 200 million migrants worldwide. The feminization of labor migration is particularly pronounced in the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where national-level estimates indicate that women comprise 60-75 percent of legal migrants, many of whom are employed as domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia.

Estimating the prevalence of abuse is difficult given the lack of reporting mechanisms, the lack of legal protections and restrictions on the freedom of movement of domestic workers. However, there are many indications that abuses are widespread. In Saudi Arabia, the embassies of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines handle thousands of complaints every year. In January 2004, for instance, the Sri Lankan embassy estimated it was receiving about 150 domestic workers each month who had fled abusive employers. According to information provided by embassies in Singapore, at least 147 domestic workers have fallen to their deaths from tall buildings since 1998 due to hazardous workplace conditions or suicide.

“Domestic workers are often hostage to labor agents and employers,” said Varia. “Governments must better regulate working conditions, detect violations and impose meaningful civil and criminal sanctions.”

Labor legislation in Hong Kong sets a positive example – domestic workers have the right to a minimum wage, a weekly day of rest, maternity leave and public holidays.

In general, labor legislation must be complemented by criminal laws allowing for 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.

Punitive immigration laws, such as those used in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, that discourage migrant domestic workers from fleeing abusive employers and militate against pressing charges for criminal offenses, should be reformed.

The U.N. General Assembly’s High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in September 2006 will be an important venue for governments to increase their cooperation and prevent abuses associated with migration for domestic work. This week, national human rights commissions from across Asia met to discuss women migrants and irregular migrants in a conference hosted by Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence against Women.

Human Rights Watch urged governments to extend key labor protections to domestic workers, establish minimum standards of employment regionally to prevent unhealthy competition, and ensure that employers and labor agents are held accountable for abusive practices. They should also prioritize the elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including child domestic work.

Selected testimonies:

“As a domestic worker, you have no control over your life. No one respects you. You have no rights. This is the lowest kind of work.”

– Hasana, child domestic worker who began employment at age 12, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, December 4, 2004.

“It was hard to work for them because there was not enough food. I got food once a day. If I made a mistake … [my employer] wouldn’t give me food for two days. I often got treatment like that. Sometimes for one, two, three days. Because I was starving, I would steal food from the house. Because of that, the employer beat me badly.”

– Arianti Harikusomo, Indonesian domestic worker, age 27, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 25, 2004.

“If I did something the employer didn’t like, she would grab my hair and hit my head on the wall. She would say things like, ‘I don’t pay you to sit and watch TV! You don’t wash the dishes well. I pay your mother good money and you don’t do anything [to deserve it].’ … Once I forgot clothes in the washer, and they started to smell, so she grabbed my head and tried to stick it in the washing machine.”

– Saida B., child domestic worker, age 15, Casablanca, Morocco, May 17, 2005.

“I was locked up inside the agency for 45 days. We were Indonesians and Filipinos; 25 of us. We got food only once a day. We couldn’t go out at all. The agency said we owed them 1,500 Dhm – three months’ salary. Five of us ran away; we used a blanket to escape from the second floor. Four of us got injured.”

– Cristina Suarez, Filipina domestic worker, age 26, Dubai, UAE, February 27, 2006.

“When the lady went to drop off the children to the grandmother’s house, the man would stay at home … he raped me many, many times; once a day, every day for three months. He hit me a lot because I didn’t want to have sex. I don’t know what a condom is, but he used some tissues after he raped me. [After paying off my three months’ debt] I took a knife, I said, ‘Don’t get near me, what are you doing?’ I told the lady; she was very angry with me and [the next day] she took me to the harbor and said she bought a ticket for me to Pontianak. I had no money to get home from Pontianak. I haven’t gone to a doctor.”

– Zakiah, returned domestic worker from Malaysia, age 20, Lombok, Indonesia, January 24, 2004.

“There was a woman who came to the market to buy charcoal. She found me and told my mother about a woman in Lomé who was looking for a girl like me to stay with her and do domestic work. She came to my mother and my mother gave me away. The woman gave my mother some money, but I don’t know how much.”

– Kéméyao A., child trafficking victim, age 10, Lomé, Togo, May 14, 2002.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Most Viewed