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I. Introduction

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 twelve, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, December 4, 2004
I worked [there] for three months. Sometimes I did not get any food. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and slept at 10 p.m.…[My employer] shouted at me, “You are a poor person. You have to know your position, you are here to work.” I was not allowed to go out of the house. I had not seen my family since I left home. I was not paid any salary.… [My employer] hit me when she was angry. Three times she hit. Once she slapped my face and then kicked me above my right hip. It hurt and swelled up. I did not go to the doctor. She laughed when I asked that I wanted to see the doctor.
—Asma, child domestic worker, age sixteen, Medan, Indonesia, December 13, 2004

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.1 Instead of guaranteeing their ability to work with dignity and free of 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.

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; non-payment of wages; and excessively long working hours with no rest days. 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.

Increased awareness has unfortunately not been matched by concerted government action. Hong Kong is one of the few places where the government guarantees equal protection under its labor laws. The norm is for governments to exclude domestic workers from these laws altogether, or to provide weaker, poorly enforced regulations that leave employers enjoying virtual impunity to exact excruciatingly long hours of work for grossly inadequate wages.

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 (see Appendix A). In over twelve different research trips and numerous follow-up trips, we have interviewed hundreds of women and girl domestic workers, government officials, employment agents, employers, activists with private nongovernmental and faith-based organizations, and representatives of international organizations.

Our extensive research reveals an alarming prevalence of abuses against domestic workers. While we interviewed workers in each country who were happy with their jobs, many more described deplorable working conditions and egregious violations of their rights that are strikingly similar across countries. Despite increasing attention and some positive steps, governments’ response has thus far been inadequate. This compendium sets out our findings with respect to the following overlapping categories: (1) principal criminal abuses common to all domestic workers; (2) principal labor abuses common to all domestic workers and exclusion from labor laws; (3) specific concerns of child domestic workers; and (4) specific concerns of migrant workers.2 We discuss best and worst government responses and practices, and present our recommendations for action.


Several barriers inhibit estimates of the total number of women and girl domestic workers at national and international levels. Categorized as “informal labor,” most governments consider domestic work beyond the scope of regulation and scrutiny. Hidden in private households, domestic workers may remain unregistered and uncounted—literally invisible. Despite these difficulties, some national-level estimates are available. The International Labour Organization (ILO), which has conducted several national baseline studies to determine the scope of child domestic labor, estimates that more girls under sixteen work in domestic service than in any other category of child labor.3 In Indonesia, the ILO estimates there are nearly 700,000 child domestic workers, while in El Salvador over 20,000 girls and women between the ages of fourteen and nineteen are domestic workers.  

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. Women and girls migrating as domestic workers are an important part of this trend. 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. The vast majority of these are employed as domestic workers in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Of the estimated 850,000 workers from Indonesia and Sri Lanka in Saudi Arabia, the majority are women and in some cases girls (using falsified travel documents) employed as domestic workers. There are approximately 160,000 migrant domestic workers in Singapore and 300,000 in Malaysia. These numbers underestimate the true population as many women and girls migrate outside legal channels and then find employment as domestic workers.

Estimating the prevalence of abuse is also difficult given the lack of reporting mechanisms, the private nature of work, the lack of legal protections, and restrictions on freedom of movement of domestic workers. However, there are many indications that abuses are widespread. In Saudi Arabia, the Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Philippines embassies handle thousands of complaints a year.  In January 2004, for instance, the Sri Lankan embassy estimated it was receiving about 150 domestic workers each month who had fled their employers.4 In Singapore, at least 147 domestic workers have fallen to their deaths from hazardous workplace conditions or suicide. In most of these countries, embassies have created shelters onsite to handle the huge numbers of domestic workers seeking assistance for unpaid wages, physical or sexual abuse, or poor working conditions. In many country studies around the world, the ILO’s International Program for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) has found that working conditions are so exploitative that domestic work is a worst form of child labor.

In this report, the stories of abuse told by domestic workers around the globe demonstrate the profound human cost of the negligence and discrimination they experience. To protect their privacy, all the names of domestic workers have been changed, unless otherwise indicated. In line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Human Rights Watch considers a child to be any person under the age of eighteen.

Best and worst government practices

Governments’ response to abuses against domestic workers have largely been piecemeal and reactive. Domestic workers, at risk of rights violations during recruitment, placement and employment, are often in situations that prevent them from reporting abuses. Comprehensive and proactive strategies are needed to provide oversight of labor agencies and recruiters, monitor working conditions, detect violations, and impose civil and criminal sanctions on abusive agencies and employers. Instead, in an overall context of discrimination against domestic workers by excluding them from labor laws, efforts to detect and sanction workplace abuse are severely limited. Laws that should protect child domestic workers are poorly enforced. And although countries of workers’ origin and countries of employment have adopted initiatives to address abuse of migrant domestic workers, much needed legal reform, enhanced oversight and regulation of employment agencies, and improved access to mechanisms for redress and rehabilitation for abuse are still lacking.

An appropriate legal framework is critical to protecting domestic workers’ rights. 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. Most countries around the world, however, exclude domestic work from their labor codes or provide for lesser rights. Labor legislation must 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 criminal penalties for certain abuses against domestic workers, Singapore has rightly acknowledged the particular risks faced by these workers. Punitive immigration laws, as in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, that discourage migrant domestic workers from fleeing abusive employers and militate against pressing charges for criminal offenses, must be reformed. In Malaysia and the United States, domestic workers may get special visas to remain in the country to pursue civil and criminal complaints, but reforms should be adopted to make it easier to obtain authorization to work during this period.

Good laws become meaningful when accompanied by public awareness campaigns, training of law enforcement, labor and immigration officials, the existence of accessible complaint mechanisms, and effective enforcement. Best practices here include the full protection of domestic workers under Hong Kong’s labor laws, and the prosecution and imprisonment of employers who have physically abused their domestic workers in Singapore. This type of protection remains rare, however, and government authorities charged with enforcing domestic workers’ rights often lack sufficient resources and training to help them identify abuses and assist victims. Laws that could be used to protect child domestic workers, such as Indonesia’s Child Protection Act and minimum age for employment laws in most countries, are rarely invoked.

An adequate framework must be in place to regulate and monitor recruitment, training, and employment conditions. Though certain aspects should be improved, Singapore’s accreditation program for employment agencies is a step in the right direction. Through the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, the Philippines has extended greater government protections to Filipinas employed abroad as domestic workers, including a standard contract that ensures a weekly day of rest and regulations that require employers to pay most of the costs associated with recruitment and placement. Monitoring of workplace conditions—a critical element to enforcing domestic workers’ rights—remains weak to non-existent in most countries, in part due to restrictions on the ability of labor inspectors to enter private households. Mechanisms to blacklist employment agencies that break the law, identify and blacklist abusive employers, and screen returning migrant domestic workers are all necessary components of a comprehensive strategy.

Despite increasing recognition by the international community of the systematic exploitation and abuse suffered by domestic workers, much more international commitment and concerted effort is required to end these abuses. The United Nations bodies such as the ILO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) have begun to address the issue. However, there are often no regional minimum standards on treatment of migrant domestic workers, leading to a “race to the bottom”—a rivalry to push the competitive edge of their potential overseas domestic labor workforce by offering the fewest labor protections—especially among countries of origin like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India. Economic cooperation bodies that established core minimum labor standards have failed to address domestic work. Many governments have yet to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers Convention) or to effectively enforce it. Governments need to pay much more attention to the role of education reforms in preventing children from leaving school to be domestic workers, or ensuring they can continue their education while working.

The UN General Assembly’s High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in September 2006 will be an important venue for governments to increase their cooperation regarding domestic work, to commit to strong, sustained, and immediate actions to extend key labor protections to domestic workers, and to create mechanisms for implementation.

Key recommendations

To Labor Ministries

Increase awareness about domestic workers by:

  • Developing mass public information campaigns to educate domestic workers, labor recruiters, and employers about domestic workers’ rights and the penalties for committing abuse. Ensure dissemination of this information in the languages spoken by domestic workers;
  • Gathering data on domestic workers in all government labor force surveys, including data on labor complaints and criminal cases involving domestic workers, disaggregated by sex and age.

Strengthen labor protections for domestic workers and enforcement by:

  • Creating and publicizing accessible complaints mechanisms for domestic workers who experience problems such as violence, unpaid wages, or poor working conditions, including hotlines, support for aid groups that assist domestic workers, helpdesks at locations frequented by domestic workers, and coordination with the police and immigration officials;
  • Authorizing labor inspectors to enter private houses to investigate conditions of employment for domestic workers;
  • Enacting regulations to monitor labor recruitment practices and training centers, and providing sanctions for labor agents who commit abuses;
  • Implementing policies to prevent exorbitant recruitment fees, exploitative systems of debt payments, and forced labor.

Address child labor by:

  • Prioritizing the elimination of the worst forms of child domestic labor and, with the assistance of the International Labour Organization, instituting a Time-Bound program to eliminate the worst forms of child labor;
  • Strictly enforcing fifteen as the minimum age of employment for all sectors, including domestic labor;
  • Investigating promptly all complaints of hazardous child labor.

To Heads of State and Government, and Parliaments

  • Extend equal protection of the labor laws to domestic workers, including rights to a just wage, overtime pay, weekly rest days, benefits, and workers’ compensation.
  • Enact specific regulations governing minimum age of employment, hours of work, forms of labor likely to be harmful to children, corporal punishment, entitlement to rest and leisure, and compensation.
  • Ratify the Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
  • Ratify the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention, Minimum Age Convention and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention; and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

To the Police, Attorney General’s Offices, and the Judiciary

  • Develop protocols and train police officers on how to respond appropriately to domestic workers’ complaints, how to investigate and collect evidence in such cases, and to provide referrals for health care, counseling, shelter, legal aid, and in the case of migrant domestic workers, referrals to their embassies.
  • Prosecute perpetrators of physical violence, sexual violence, and those who unlawfully confine women and girl domestic workers.
  • Investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of forced labor and trafficking in women and children into forced domestic work.

To the Foreign Ministries of Workers’ Countries of Origin

  • Prioritize increased protections for migrant domestic workers through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, including increased cooperation with other labor-sending countries and agreements ensuring regional minimum standards.
  • Improve services for migrant domestic workers at embassies and consular offices, including adequate staffing, access to legal aid, health care, trauma counseling, and shelter. Conduct outreach by supporting domestic workers’ associations, information campaigns, and skills-training programs.
  • Collect detailed information on all abuse cases and complaints made by migrant domestic workers. Track and make publicly available data on types of abuses, the number of formal complaints, the time involved to resolve cases, and the final resolution. Data on employment agencies found to have unethical or abusive practices should also be available to potential workers and employers.

To Ministries of Education

  • Ensure the right of all children to free and compulsory basic education. In particular ensure that school fees and related costs are not barriers to children’s enjoyment of formal education.

[1] Although men and boys may also be domestic workers, this report focuses on the women and girls who comprise the overwhelming majority of workers in this sector around the world.

[2] Throughout this report, the term “migrant worker” denotes a person who has traveled transnationally, consistent with the definition in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers Convention), adopted December 18, 1992, U.N. G.A. Res. 45/158 (entered into force July 1, 2003), art. 2.1: “The term ‘migrant worker’ refers to a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.”

[3] International Labour Organization, Child Labour.  Tolerating the Intolerable (Geneva: ILO, 1996).

[4] Mohammed Rassooldeen, “Sri Lanka to Sign Deal to Protect Interests of Housemaids, Employers,” Arab News, January 22, 2004.

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