Child Domestics: The World's Invisible Workers

A Human Rights Watch Backgrounder

SUMMARY  
 
Child domestic workers are nearly invisible among child laborers. They work alone in individual households, hidden from public scrutiny, their lives controlled by their employers. Child domestics, nearly all girls, work long hours for little or no pay. Many have no opportunity to go to school, or are forced to drop out because of the demands of their job. They are subject to verbal and physical abuse, and particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. They may be fired for small infractions, losing not only their jobs, but their place of residence as well.  

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that more girls work as domestics than in any other form of child labor. Yet they have received little attention, and even less protection. Government laws often exclude domestic workers from basic labor rights, labor ministries rarely monitor or investigate conditions of work in private households, and few programs addressing child labor include child domestics.  
 
In independent investigations in West Africa (2002), Guatemala (2000), El Salvador (2003), and Malaysia/Indonesia (2004), Human Rights Watch found that child domestics are exploited and abused on a routine basis. Despite the striking differences between these countries, the daily realities of the children are remarkably similar.  
 
CENTRAL AMERICA  
 
“The señor wanted to take advantage of me, he followed me around… he grabbed my breasts twice from behind while I was washing clothes in the pila. I yelled, and the boy came out, and the señor left. I didn’t tell the señora, because I was afraid. I just quit.”  
—María A., Guatemala, describing an incident when she was fourteen or fifteen  
 
In Guatemala and El Salvador tens of thousands of girls work as domestics, some as young as eight years old. Human Rights Watch found that domestic workers often labor over fifteen hours a day, or ninety hours a week, for wages much lower than those of other workers. Like domestics in most other countries, they are routinely subject to verbal and emotional abuse from their employers, and are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual violence from men living in or associated with the household.  
 
According to one local advocate in Guatemala, employers control nearly every aspect of a domestic worker’s life, including “the salary she earns, the work she does, her working hours, the days she can go out, where she can go and even what language she should speak in the home and how she should dress.”  
 
Domestic work frequently interferes with schooling. Many domestics have no opportunity to attend school. Others drop out, most commonly because their work hours conflict with the school day or because of school fees and other education-related expenses. Some are able to attend night classes, but traveling to and from school at night involves increased risks to their safety.  
 
Seventeen-year-old Flor N. works thirteen hours each day as a domestic worker in San Salvador, beginning at 4:30 a.m. “It’s heavy work: washing, ironing, taking care of the child,” she told Human Rights Watch. When she finishes her workday, she heads to her fifth grade evening class. “Sometimes I come to school super tired….I get up at 2 a.m. to go to work.” When she rises at 2 a.m. to return to work, she must walk one kilometer along a dangerous road to catch a minibus. The only domestic worker for a household of four adults and a three-year-old, she is also responsible for preparing their lunch, dinner, and snacks, and she watches the child. “Sometimes I eat, but sometimes I am too busy,” she told us. "There is no rest for me. I can sit, but I have to be doing something.” She has only one day off each month and receives wages of about U.S.$26/month for her labor.  
 
In Guatemala, most domestic workers migrate from rural villages to work in urban households. Many are Mayan, and are routinely subject to ethnic discrimination. A Keqchikel girl told Human Rights Watch that when she was fourteen, she worked seventeen hours a day, with only ten minutes to eat lunch and dinner. Her employers gave her “a different class of food” than they ate themselves, and would not let her eat near them. “They treated me poorly because I wear traje (traditional dress),” she said.  
 
One third of the domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed in Guatemala reported having suffered some kind of unwanted sexual approaches by men living in or associated with the household. Few domestic workers feel they can tell the woman of the house about such abuse; most simply quit and look for another job.  
 
Both the Guatemalan and Salvadoran labor codes effectively exclude domestics from basic labor rights. Unlike most other workers, they are denied the nationally-recognized eight-hour workday. Domestics commonly receive wages that are lower than the minimum wages in other sectors of employment.  
 
Salvadoran government officials often deny that children, particularly those under the minimum employment age of fourteen, work in domestic service in large numbers. 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 ILO Time-Bound Program, an initiative to eliminate the worst forms of child labor within a period of five to ten years.  
 
INDONESIA/MALAYSIA  
 
I took care of two children…. I cleaned all parts of the house, washed the floor, washed clothes, ironed, cleaned the walls, and washed the car. I cleaned two houses, because I also cleaned the grandmother’s house. I worked from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. I had no rest during the day. I worked everyday and was not allowed to go out, not even to walk on the street. The lady employer yelled at me everyday. She slapped me one or two times a week. My employer kept my passport. I was scared to run away without my passport. I wanted to run away, but I was afraid the Malaysian government and security would catch me. I had to buy my own ticket home. [When I returned to Indonesia,] I called the labor recruitment company in Jakarta to complain about my salary, but they didn’t want to take my call.  
─ Srihati H., seventeen years old, former Indonesian migrant domestic worker in Malaysia  
 
Approximately 200,000 Indonesian girls and women work in Malaysia as household domestics. Human Rights Watch interviews in 2004 with Indonesian migrant workers, Indonesian government officials, and labor agents suggest that many girls migrate for work abroad with altered ages on their travel documents, masking the number of girls in official statistics. Suwari S. told Human Rights Watch, “There were a lot of young girls [in the labor recruitment training center], the youngest was fifteen. They changed my age to twenty-six; I was sixteen at the time.”  
 
Child domestic workers encounter abuses at every stage of the migration process, including recruitment, training, employment, and return. Indonesian girls seeking employment abroad encounter unscrupulous labor agents, discriminatory hiring processes, and months-long confinement in overcrowded training centers. In order to pay recruitment and processing fees, they either take large loans requiring repayment at extremely high interest rates or the first four or five months of their salary is deducted. Labor recruiters often fail to provide complete information about job responsibilities, work conditions, or where the girls can turn for help if they face abuse. Girls expecting to spend one month in pre-departure training facilities are often trapped in heavily guarded centers for three to six months without any income, or may be trafficked into forced labor, including forced domestic work or forced sex work.  
 
Once employed as domestic workers in Malaysia, Indonesian girls and women typically work sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, with no overtime pay and with no scheduled rest. Domestic workers in Malaysia are not allowed outside of the house and many reported they were unable to write letters home, make phone calls, or practice their religion. Many employers withhold payment of wages until the standard two-year contract is completed, making it difficult for girls to escape from abusive situations. At the end of the contract, many do not receive their full wages, and if they do, receive U.S.$90-100 per month, amounting to less than $0.25 per hour. Employers and labor agents routinely confiscate the passports of domestic workers, making it difficult for them to escape. The rigid enforcement of Malaysia’s draconian immigration laws mean that workers caught without documents are often indefinitely detained and deported without being able to present their complaints about abusive employers.  
 
Abuses against child domestics are compounded by the lack of legal protection for domestic workers in Malaysia’s employment laws, and the limited possibilities for redress. Malaysia’s employment laws specifically exclude basic labor protections for domestic workers, including those governing hours of work, rest days, and compensation for accidents. There are no mechanisms for monitoring workplace conditions, and the resolution of most abuse cases is left to private, profit-motivated labor agencies often guilty of committing abuses themselves. Bilateral labor agreements between Indonesia and Malaysia fail to provide adequate protections for domestic workers, and do not include protections for child workers. Malaysia and Indonesia have both ratified ILO Convention 182 on the Prohibition of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, but enforcement remains weak.  
 
WEST AND CENTRAL AFRICA  
 
In the beginning, she [my boss] was nice to me, but then she changed. Any time I did something wrong, she would shout at me and insult me. Sometimes she would tell her friends what I had done, and they would come over and beat me. . . . She would curse me and say I had no future.  
—Assoupi H., sixteen, a child domestic worker in Togo  
 
In west and central Africa, girls as young as seven provide a cheap workforce to families needing assistance with housework or small commercial trades. They work long days performing a variety of tasks, such as selling bread, fruit or milk in the market, grilling skewers of meat on the roadside, or working in a small boutique. Some describe selling bread in the market from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m, then returning home to bake bread for the next day. Others are forced to spend all day pounding fufu, a doughy paste made of mashed yams or cassava. When not working in markets, girls perform domestic chores such as preparing meals, washing dishes, or caring for young children. One sixteen-year old girl was trafficked to Togo when she was only three. “I had to fetch water for the house, sweep, wash the dishes, and wash clothes,” she said. “I would bathe the children, cook for them, and wash their clothes. When they were young, they cried a lot.”  
 
Child domestics work under constant threat of punishment and physical abuse. “If I lost any yam in the pounding, the woman beat me—slapped me with her hand,” a Togolese girl reported. Another said, “If we didn’t sell all the bread in one day, she [the boss] would beat us with a stick.” In interviews with Human Rights Watch, girls described being struck with blunt objects and electric wire, and threatened with punishment and sometimes death. Many escaped following an incident of unendurable abuse, after which they lived abandoned in the street. Girls also faced the risk of sexual abuse by older men or boys living in the same house or when living in the street.  
 
Child domestic work is linked to the broader phenomenon of child trafficking, which occurs along numerous routes in west and central Africa. The United Nations estimates that 200,000 children are recruited for labor exploitation each year in the region that includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo. Child traffickers capitalize on a combination of entrenched poverty and weak child protection laws, as well as a high demand for cheap labor in host countries. Children orphaned by HIV/AIDS or other causes may be disproportionately vulnerable due to the stigma they face, as well as the economic pressures caused by the loss of a breadwinner. Child trafficking is also linked to the denial of education, especially for girls, who may be the first to be withdrawn from school to earn a living. A number of children report that the prohibitive cost of school supplies or uniforms forces them to withdraw from school, after which they are recruited by child traffickers.  
 
Some countries in the region have enacted anti-trafficking legislation in compliance with the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking of Persons (2000), but such laws remain poorly enforced. Gabonese authorities reportedly conduct periodic roundups of child laborers and arrange for their repatriation to their country of origin. Employers and traffickers are rarely prosecuted, however. While some bilateral and multilateral repatriation agreements exist, efforts to negotiate a regional anti-trafficking convention stalled in 2002. Governments also fail to provide adequate protection to trafficked children. While some short-term shelters exist, follow-up and rehabilitation are rarely conducted, and a lack of child protection measures often allows children to be re-trafficked multiple times.  
 
CHILD LABOR UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW  
 
Under international law, child labor in itself is not prohibited, in recognition of the potential benefits of some forms of work and of the realities that require many children to enter the workforce to support their own or their families’ basic needs. Instead, international treaties address the circumstances under which children may work and require states to set minimum ages for employment. In addition, children who work do not give up the basic human rights that all children are guaranteed; in particular, they continue to enjoy the right to education.  
 
The International Prohibition on Harmful or Hazardous Child Labor  
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all countries except Somalia and the United States, guarantees children the right “to be protected from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”  
 
The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1999, and ratified by 150 countries worldwide, develops the prohibition on harmful or hazardous work more fully. Under the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, some forms of child labor are flatly prohibited, such as slavery or practices similar to slavery. Other types of work are prohibited if they constitute “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.”  
 
ILO recommendations for what constitutes hazardous labor under the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention includes work that “exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse” or involves “particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work where the child is unreasonably confined to the premises of the employer.” Under these criteria, most child domestic work would constitute hazardous labor and should be prohibited.  
 
The Right to Education  
The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children’s right to education, stating that primary education must be “compulsory and available free to all.” Secondary education, including vocational education, must be “available and accessible to every child,” with the progressive introduction of free secondary education. With regard to the interplay between child labor and education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly guarantees children the right “to be protected from performing any work that is likely . . . to interfere with the child’s education . . . .”  
 
The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) provides for the elimination of discrimination against girls in education, including access to schooling, reduction of female student drop-out rates, and programs for girls who have left school prematurely.  
 
CONCLUSIONS:  
 
The large numbers of girls working as domestic laborers, and the extreme exploitation and abuse that they endure requires that the international community prioritize protection for child domestics as part of strategies to end child labor. Key steps that governments can take to protect the rights of child domestics include the following:  
 
- Establishing an unequivocal minimum age for employment and explicitly prohibiting the employment of all children under the age of eighteen in harmful or hazardous labor.  
- Amending national laws as necessary to ensure that domestic workers receive the same rights as other workers, including a minimum wage, time off, and limits on hours of work.  
 
- Launching public information campaigns on the rights of domestic workers and responsibilities of employers, with special emphasis on the situation of child domestic workers and the potential hazards they face.  
 
- Ensuring that all children enjoy the right to a free basic education by eliminating formal school fees and other obstacles to education, and by identifying and implementing strategies to reduce other costs to attending school, such as transportation, school supplies, and uniforms.  
 
- Creating a confidential toll-free hotline to receive reports of workers’ rights violations, including abuses against child domestics.  
 
- Creating effective mechanisms for inspection, enforcement, and monitoring of child labor, and promptly investigating any complaints of abuses against child domestics.  
 
- Taking all appropriate law enforcement measures against perpetrators of physical and/or sexual violence against child domestics.  
 
- Ensuring care and support to children who escape domestic labor and have suffered physical or sexual violence, including treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.  

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