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III. Exclusion from labor laws

It was necessary to include domestic service in the labor code because not to do so would have been unjustified, but to give them the same treatment as industrial or commercial workers would have constituted an even bigger mistake, which would have created a general animosity toward the labor code among thousands of housewives. Remember that the domestic worker becomes a part of the family, which does not happen with any other type of workers.
—Oscar Barahona Streber, author of Guatemala’s 1947 labor code70

Governments around the world have failed to acknowledge the rights of domestic workers perhaps most egregiously by systematically excluding these workers from key labor protections afforded to most other categories of workers under national laws. Such rights include guarantees of a minimum wage, overtime pay, rest days, annual leave, fair termination of contracts, benefits, and workers’ compensation. This exclusion denies domestic workers equal protection under the law and has a discriminatory impact on women and girls, who constitute the vast majority of this category of workers.

Disregard for the labor rights of paid domestic workers is directly linked to the status of women. Domestic work is considered the natural extension of women’s role in the family and society. Paid domestic workers essentially perform for wages the tasks the woman of the house is socially expected to perform for free. In countries such as Guatemala, where the disproportionate majority of domestic workers are indigenous women, gender discrimination is compounded by racial and ethnic discrimination.

The failure properly to regulate paid domestic work facilitates egregious abuse and exploitation, and means domestic workers have little or no means for seeking redress. Women and girls employed in private households encounter a wide range of human rights violations in the workplace, including extremely long hours of work without a guaranteed minimum wage or overtime pay; no rest days; incomplete and irregular payment of wages; unsafe working conditions; lack of proper health care; no workers’ compensation; and job insecurity. Inadequate monitoring by any independent or government agency compounds these abuses by creating an environment of impunity for employers.

Wage exploitation

I left home when I was fifteen. I was told by an agent that I would be sent to Malaysia, but was placed in another house in Tanjungpinang [Indonesia]. I woke up at 4:15 a.m.… I was exhausted when I went to sleep at 10 p.m…. I only had five minutes’ rest. I did not get any day off. I did not get any salary. I worked there five months.
—Asma, child domestic worker, age sixteen, Medan, Indonesia, December 13, 2005

Minimum wage and overtime pay

Domestic workers are almost always grossly underpaid for the long hours they are required to work. Denied by law the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay in most countries, domestic workers usually earn well below service sector minimum wages and prevailing wages for comparable work typically performed by men, for example gardening and driving. Child domestic workers, and women and girls who have traveled abroad to find work are at a particular disadvantage because of their relative inability to negotiate a decent wage. Employers, labor agents, and even government authorities often justify low wages by claiming women and girls earn more than they would at home, and that expenses for food and lodging must be factored in to arrive at the real wage. However, official guidelines for calculating deductions and minimum quality standards for food and accommodation are usually lacking. In these conditions, the provision of (often sorely inadequate) food and lodging is used as an excuse for labor exploitation.

Human Rights Watch has collected detailed information about earned wages from domestic workers in numerous countries. Accounting for the average number of hours worked per day, hourly wages for domestic workers are consistently well below the national minimum wages. Younger girls typically earn less than older child domestic workers. In Guatemala, if domestic workers were entitled to the non-agricultural minimum wage and overtime pay, they would have to earn over double what the average domestic worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch actually earned.  In Singapore, where there is no national minimum wage, migrant domestic workers earn a fraction of the wages of Singaporean workers in comparable occupations, such as gardening and cleaning. Employment agencies assign different wages based on national origin, with Indonesian and Sri Lankan workers earning significantly less than Filipina domestic workers.

Even where regulations do exist with respect to minimum wage and allowable deductions for food and lodging, these are not respected. In the United States, for example, live-in domestic workers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage requirements. Yet in forty cases examined by Human Rights Watch, the median hourly wage received by workers was U.S.$2.14—less than half the federal minimum hourly wage. In several cases, women signed a contract before traveling to the United States, only to find their monthly wages dramatically reduced once they began working. Liliana Martínez, for example, a Peruvian domestic worker employed by a representative to a mission to the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., recalled that when she arrived in the U.S., her employer’s wife said that the contract she had signed for U.S.$800 a month was “only for the eyes of the gringos [U.S. citizens],” and that she was going to pay her U.S.$300 instead because “in Peru that is a lot of money.”71

Wage withholding and unpaid wages

Many domestic workers never receive all of their meager salaries. Unpaid wages is one of the most frequent complaints made by domestic workers across countries. In Morocco and Indonesia, we found that employers commonly withhold wages from child domestic workers, especially before a religious feast or annual leave, to ensure the girls will return. Migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia are extremely vulnerable to withholding and nonpayment of salary, as well as arbitrary and illegal deductions from their salaries. A study by the Asian Migrant Centre found that 42 percent of Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong were underpaid.72

Samira M., a sixteen-year-old Moroccan domestic worker, explained her experience:

I have worked in four or five houses. They wouldn’t give us the money when it came time for `Eid [religious holiday]. I would go home for `Eid and not come back because of the bad treatment. When I would go home they wouldn’t give me all the salary owed me, for example they wouldn’t give me the last month or two months or one-and-a-half months.73  

Lastri, a fifteen-year-old Indonesian girl, told Human Rights Watch she felt “trapped” because her employer would not pay her monthly salary of Rp. 250,000 (U.S.$27.77). She recalled, “I told my employer that I wanted to go home but she forbade me. I told her that I wanted to resign. The employer got angry at me. She had my money and would not pay me if I left.”74

Employers sometimes substitute “allowances” for real wages, especially for girl domestic workers. Several girl domestic workers in Morocco interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not receive salaries, but rather small sums of spending money once a week, usually between 5 and 10 dh (U.S.$0.55-1.10). Shadia A. described her second job as a domestic worker at age fifteen: “They didn’t give me my salary and they said they would hold it for me. I didn’t get paid for eight years… In the beginning they would give me 5 dh a week, then 10 dh a week, then at the end 30 dh a week (U.S.$0.55, $1.10 and $3.31, respectively)… One day I decided to leave and they didn’t give me any of my salary.”75

In Malaysia, employers commonly pay migrant domestic workers only upon completion of the standard two-year contract, as a ploy to prevent them from running away or reporting abuses. When domestic workers do receive payment, it is often not the agreed-upon amount. Of the fifty-one Indonesian domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Malaysia, twenty-six did not receive their full salary, twelve received no salary at all, and most of the others were still working and hoping to get their salary at the end of their two-year contracts. Reforms pending at the time of writing would require employers to pay domestic workers monthly.

Edna, a thirty-year-old Filipina, worked for two years in conditions of forced confinement in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. When her employer took her to the airport at the end of her two-year contract, she was astonished that he handed her only a fraction of her owed salary. When she demanded the rest of her salary, her employer said they had deducted roughly half of what they owed her for the plane ticket, which is illegal. Intimidated, and having no options at the airport, Edna felt she had no alternative but to leave.76

Rest days

Sister, we are human. We need to take a day off.
—Rita Yuboc, Filipina domestic worker, age twenty-four, Singapore, February 21, 2005

For many domestic workers a weekly day of rest is at best a sporadic concession granted by employers rather than a right guaranteed by law. Indeed, it is common for employers to require their domestic workers to labor seven days a week for months, even years, on end.  The vast majority of women and girl domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not have a regular day of rest. Employers and labor agencies tend to justify denying domestic workers a day off in the name of protection, helping them to save money, preventing them from seeking a second job, or preventing them from establishing relationships with men and becoming pregnant.

Even in countries where the law clearly gives domestic workers the right to one day off per week, such as El Salvador, lack of government oversight and the vulnerability of domestic workers, especially young girls and migrants, combine to give employers carte blanche. Seventeen-year-old Flor N., for example, worked thirteen hours a day as a domestic worker in El Salvador and enjoyed a day off only once a month.77 In neighboring Guatemala, the labor code stipulates that a domestic worker can only be required to work eight hours on Sundays and national holidays; this means domestic workers can in fact be required to work eight hours on these days, in other words the number of hours in the normal workday for most other Guatemalan workers. Although it is customary in Guatemala to give domestic workers a day of rest on Sundays, Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which this practice was not respected. In a particularly egregious case, Daniela Santos Pérez worked for five years in the same household, beginning at age fourteen, and had only one day off during that entire time.78

Labor agents placing migrant domestic workers have enormous influence over the terms of these workers’ contracts, often at the expense of domestic workers’ rights. In Singapore, for example, several labor agents told Human Rights Watch that they use a standard model contract stipulating just one day off per month, but counsel employers to deny rest days until the first six months of employment have finished. In other cases, labor agents obligate migrant domestic workers to sign contracts that do not provide for a day off. Marites Padilla echoed the experience of many domestic workers when she explained, “I signed a contract for 340 dollars [per month] with no day off. The agents didn’t give me a choice about the day off.”79 Most contracts for Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia stipulate one day off per week or a salary commensurate with a seven-day workweek. With only a few exceptions, the Indonesian domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed in Malaysia had monthly salaries based on a six-day workweek but worked every single day without rest.

Long hours and workloads

I worked for a husband, a wife, two girls and a boy… Sometimes I didn’t sleep. I washed clothes, prepared food for the children, and prepared them for school, one by one. I would prepare milk for the youngest and prepare food for cooking. I would vacuum, mop, clean the kitchen and water the flowers. Sometimes the employer was not satisfied and would ask me to redo it over again and again. My time was wasted by doing the work over and over again. I helped to cook all the meals, and I cleaned the toilets. I was working day and night. I am not sure when I finished, because she would ask me to redo the jobs many times… Sometimes the employer said, “If you can’t finish, you can’t sleep.” I never got any rest or any days off.
— Ani Rukmono, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-one, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 26, 2004

Domestic servants work long, often unpredictable hours performing back-breaking tasks: fetching water, washing clothes (often by hand), ironing, washing dishes, scrubbing and mopping floors, dusting, shopping, cooking, making beds, washing windows, walking dogs, and caring for children and the elderly, among other tasks. In some countries, the chores are particularly arduous. Girls we spoke with who had been trafficked from Togo into domestic work told of baking bread at night until the early hours of the morning and pounding fufu—using a large mortar and pestle to mash yams or cassava vigorously into a doughy paste for sixteen hours a day.

Most domestic workers toil between fourteen and eighteen hours a day with rare, often stolen, moments for rest. In interview after interview, in countries in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia, domestic workers have spoken to Human Rights Watch of a relentless onslaught of work obligations that take “all day” with “no rest.” The manner in which these women and girls describe their typical work day conveys their exhaustion. Mónica F., a seventeen-year-old domestic worker in El Salvador, described her day like this:

At 5:30 a.m. I would get up and prepare breakfast and serve it. Then the señora [female employer] would leave and I would clean, feed the child breakfast, and then I would have breakfast at around 9 a.m. The girl was six-and-a-half years old. Then I would wash the clothes for all of the family. Then I would get the child a snack, then mop, then fix lunch, then bathe the child, then mop. I would mop three times a day. Then [I would] serve lunch, then clean the bathrooms, then straighten the rooms, then give the child a snack, then watch the child, then clean; then I would cook dinner… After dinner I would wash the dishes and then iron into the night.80

Those caring for young children are called upon to work around the clock. Dita Wulansih, a twenty-two-year-old Indonesian domestic worker employed in Singapore, took care of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy and a three-week-old girl:

“I had to look after the baby, clean the house, cook. I started work at 6 a.m. and went to bed at 1 a.m… if the baby woke up at night, I had to wake up too. During the day I had to stop my work to take care of her. I did everything… I got no sleep…”81

In some cases, domestic workers are required to work in their employer’s shop or business in addition to performing their established duties in the household. For instance, girls trafficked from rural villages in Togo to Lomé, the capital, and to neighboring countries frequently do myriad tasks in addition to all the housework, such as selling merchandise in markets, baking bread, grilling meat at roadside stands, or working in small shops or boutiques.  At age eleven, Kafui A. was taken to Lomé to work for a woman she had never met before. She was woken every day at 4 a.m. to do the housework, and then sent to the market to sell second-hand clothes all day.82 Human Rights Watch documented several cases in Malaysia and Singapore where employers forced migrant domestic workers to perform additional labor.  In addition to cleaning two residences and her employer’s factory, Rita Yuboc, a Filipina domestic worker in Singapore, was made to work in a factory daily.83 Aisyah Fatah, an Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore, had to help her employer operate a laundry business out of the home.84

Workers’ compensation

[She] fell over, about three years ago. She stood on the kitchen ledge. She slipped and fell four floors…. Employers scream if the windows are not shining. She was in the hospital for two months.
—Diplomat, Sri Lanka High Commission, describing a workplace injury, Singapore, February 18, 2005

Domestic workers routinely engage in tasks that pose risk of injuries or long-term health problems. These include heavy lifting; bending; handling toxic cleaning chemicals, hot water, oil and irons; repetitive movements; and prolonged exposure to dust. Yet domestic workers who suffer injuries on the job or work-related illnesses often have no means to seek compensation or redress for the harm suffered. Excluded from workers’ compensation schemes in most countries, injured and ill domestic workers can only trust—often in vain—in the kindness of their employers.

In Singapore, where at least 147 migrant domestic workers died between 1999 and 2005, hazardous working conditions contributed to a portion of these deaths (suicide is the likely cause of many others). The most dangerous tasks include cleaning the outside of windows from precarious ledges (as in the case described above), and hanging wet clothes from poles out of high windows from unsafe positions. Employers in Singapore are required to take out personal injury insurance for foreign domestic workers, and in cases of accidents, the insurance may provide a lump sum payment to the worker. This system, although far better than what exists in many other countries, is not always adequate to cover medical costs or compensate the victim, however. In one case, a domestic worker fell three floors when hanging laundry and suffered spinal injuries and several broken bones. She was not able to walk for ten months after the accident. The insurance covered her initial hospital stay, but her own family has had to pay for subsequent medical care.85

Girl domestic workers are at particular risk of workplace injuries and long-term health consequences of working long hours performing tasks that surpass their physical stamina (see below, Chapter IV).

Health care and maternity leave

When I got sick they said, “you are lying, you aren’t sick!” and they didn’t give me any medicine and I had to work anyway.
—Najat Z, age eleven, domestic worker, Marrakech, Morocco, May 20, 2005

The vast majority of domestic workers do not enjoy any employment benefits such as health care and maternity leave. While individual employment contracts could theoretically remedy the failure of national labor laws and work permit regulations to guarantee domestic workers these benefits, they rarely do. Domestic workers rarely have written contracts, or, as in the case of Asian migrant workers, typically have vague and poorly enforced employment contracts through labor agencies or national embassies.

Health care

Lack of health insurance, grossly inadequate wages, and separation from family and other support networks leave most domestic workers dependent on their employers for medical care. In reality, many domestic workers never receive adequate medical attention or treatment, even for work-related injuries, and are often required to continue working while ill. When employers do take their domestic workers to a doctor for treatment, they often deduct the costs of the visits and medicine from the workers’ wages. Flor Montales, a Filipina domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates, told us, “If I got sick, [my employer] would tell me, ‘why did you come here if you get sick?’”86

In Morocco, only one of the fifteen current and former girl domestic workers we interviewed had been taken to a doctor, and her employer deducted the cost of the medicine from her salary. More typical were girls who were given non-prescription medicine but not taken to the doctor, and girls who received no medical attention at all. Zahra H. said that when she became sick on her recent job, “I kept working. They would say I was a liar. I would get very sick and tired during Ramadan because of fasting and because there was lots of cooking and dishes to wash.”87

Employers are no more likely to ensure adequate medical treatment for injuries sustained on the job. A young domestic worker in Indonesia, Vina, told us, “When I was cooking, the oil splashed on my left arm. The employer gave me toothpaste to apply. She said that it will work. It became red and a blister developed. The toothpaste hurt when I used it. She said that I don’t need to see a doctor.”88 When Jesica Gutierrez, a Guatemalan domestic worker, fell and sprained her ankle at work, her employer at first refused to take her to the hospital despite the fact that she was crying from the extreme pain. Jesica continued to insist, and the employer finally took her to the hospital and paid the bills. But once she was back at the household, her employers expected her to resume her cooking and other duties immediately: “They told me I wasn’t going to die, that I could manage, that I could clean even if I had to do it slowly.”89

Domestic workers who suffer injuries at the hands of their employers may be able to seek medical treatment if they run away. Workers described employers laughing when they asked to see a doctor after the employer had injured them. For example, fifteen-year-old Asma in Indonesia told us, “[My employer] hit me when she was angry. Three times she hit me. 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 to see a doctor.”90

Maternity leave

Domestic workers rarely enjoy any rights to maternity leave. Indeed, in most cases we documented, domestic workers who became pregnant lost their jobs.

In Guatemala, domestic workers who become pregnant are either fired, or kept on only until the pregnancy begins to impede carrying out her duties, or until the birth of the baby. Only one domestic worker we spoke with had had her employer pay for her prenatal care. Pregnant workers can sometimes face pressure to give up the baby in order to keep their jobs. Julia Domingo, a twenty-one-year-old indigenous woman, was near the end of her pregnancy when we spoke with her. She said her employer pressured her to give the baby up for adoption: “She gave me the advice that I should give up my child to people who can’t have children, so the child would grow up better.” Julia, who was never able to study and is illiterate, had asked her employer to help her get identification documents, but her employer refused unless she complied and put the baby up for adoption. When Julia refused, her employer threw her out late one night, telling her she was a “useless Indian.”91

As discussed in more detail in Chapter V, immigration policies in countries like Singapore and Malaysia deny entry to prospective migrant workers found to be pregnant, and stipulate termination of employment contracts and repatriation if they become pregnant once employed.  Far from granting maternity leave, these government regulations contribute to restrictions on domestic workers’ movements, and if they become pregnant, they must return home or terminate the pregnancy.

Termination of contracts

Domestic workers rarely enjoy any measure of job security and may often be dismissed at a moment’s notice. For migrant domestic workers, dismissal often means immediate repatriation, with no access to redress for abuses and sometimes without payment in full of their wages. Several Indonesian domestic workers who had been employed in Malaysia told Human Rights Watch they were immediately sent home after telling their female employer about sexual harassment or abuse by male members of the household. They had no opportunity to complain to the police or their embassy. Some received their wages, others did not.

In Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, where work permit regulations allow employers to repatriate migrant domestic workers at will or deny them transfers to other employers, domestic workers are less able to demand just treatment and may stay in jobs with abusive conditions. Employment agencies foster employer impunity by offering “package” deals that include a domestic worker at a set wage and a “free replacement” if there are problems. For women who have accrued debt to migrate for work or feel acute pressure to earn money for their families back home, the prospect of repatriation upon dismissal significantly weakens any bargaining power they might have.

Anita, a twenty-seven-year-old Filipina, was dismissed after working for three months in a large household in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Her employer told her, “I don’t like you anymore and I’m sending you back to the Philippines.” The recruitment agency in Jeddah that had placed her required her to write and sign a letter stating that she was returning to her country voluntarily and that the agency was free of any liability, in return for an exit visit and a ticket to the Philippines. She had no recourse to complain about the conditions of her employment or the circumstances of her dismissal.92

Inadequate living conditions

I slept without a mattress or a pillow on the floor of the storeroom.
—Muriyani Suharti, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005

I slept in the kitchen on a sheet.
—Rasha A., child domestic worker, age ten, Marrakech, Morocco, May 20, 2005

Many domestic workers are provided substandard, unhealthy and unsafe sleeping quarters with no regard for their dignity, privacy or personal security. Migrant domestic workers in Singapore told Human Rights Watch of being forced to sleep in storerooms, laundry rooms, closets, or common living areas such as the living room, kitchen or hallway. Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia spoke of sleeping in kitchens, bathrooms, even on staircases.

Child domestic workers in Indonesia and Morocco recounted appalling situations. Lastri, a fifteen-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, slept in an open garage sheltered only by a curtain,93 while Rohani, also Indonesian, said when she was fourteen she slept in a storage room, describing it “as a room for a domestic worker as you can imagine. There was no window. There were boxes in the room and old newspapers.94 I kept my belongings in a suitcase.” Sixteen-year-old Moroccan Samira M. explained that in her last job, “I slept in a storage room under the stairs. It had been a bathroom and had a bad smell coming from the drain. It was very small, my feet would hit the door when I slept.”95

Some domestic workers may be locked into their unsafe sleeping quarters at night. Rosalia, a thirty-five-year-old Filipina worked in a household in Saudi Arabia for five months. Between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. every night, she was locked in a room with no windows, air conditioning or fan.96 The personal safety of other workers is placed at risk because they do not have a lock on the door, must share a room with adult males, or are forced to sleep in common living areas, leaving them vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. Dwiyani, an Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore, explained she had to share a room with her employer’s children, a twenty-six-year-old male and a seventeen-year-old girl. “When I was at the agent’s office, I was told that both were female. At first I was very afraid. When I was asleep, the boy [twenty-six-year-old male] slept next to me, but nothing happened.”97

International labor standards and government response

The right to just and favorable conditions of work

International human rights law protects a spectrum of workers’ rights. The UDHR provides that everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working and periodic holidays with pay, as well as the right to just and favorable remuneration to ensure “an existence worthy of human dignity.”98 The ICESCR reiterates these rights in recognizing the right of all persons to just and favorable conditions of work.99

The ILO has developed a robust body of conventions dealing with virtually every aspect of workers’ rights. These include Convention No. 95 on the Protection of Wages, which specifies that wages should be paid directly and regularly to workers, and that workers should be informed of the conditions of payments before beginning employment; Convention No. 155 concerning Occupational Safety and Health; Convention No. 111 concerning Discrimination in Respect to Employment and Occupation, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex with respect to access to employment and conditions of employment; and the Maternity Protection Convention 2000 (No. 183) guaranteeing women workers—and explicitly domestic workers—the right to maternity leave.100

Freedom from discrimination

All of the countries discussed in this report exclude domestic workers from key labor rights and protections. Many countries—Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, for example—exclude outright domestic workers from national labor codes, thus offering them few avenues for redress for exploitation and abuse. Malaysia includes domestic workers but excludes them from key provisions governing pay and working conditions. In other cases, governments extend separate and weaker protection through parallel legislation or labor decrees: Singapore, for example, excludes domestic workers from its main labor laws, and provides inadequate and vague protections in the Employment of Foreign Workers Act.

The exclusion of domestic workers from many of the legal protections extended to other categories of workers constitutes unjustifiable disparate impact as prohibited under non-discrimination principles enshrined in international law. International law prohibits discrimination on the basis of such distinctions as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.101 International law also guarantees equality before the law and the entitlement of all persons to equal protection of the law.102

CEDAW obligates states parties to ensure “the right to equal remuneration [between men and women], including benefits, and to equal treatment in respect of work of equal value.”103 Laws, regulations, policies and practices that are neutral on their face can have a discriminatory impact.

Exclusions of domestic workers from national labor laws, while facially neutral in that they focus on a form of employment, may not be discriminatory in intent but have a disparate impact on women and girls since the overwhelming majority of domestic workers are female. The lesser protection extended to domestic work reflects discrimination against a form of work usually performed by women and that involves tasks associated with traditional female domestic roles such as cleaning, child care, and cooking.

No legitimate reasons exist for these exclusions, meaning that the unequal protection of domestic workers under national laws constitutes impermissible disparate impact discrimination on the basis of sex and national origin. Arguments that domestic work does not lend itself to regulations on working hours and rest days do not address the need to protect domestic workers’ right to health and right to rest. These arguments, as well as fears that such regulations would be difficult to enforce, can be addressed by encouraging the formation of domestic workers’ associations, creating accessible complaint mechanisms, and learning from the experiences of governments that do extend labor protections to domestic workers, including Hong Kong.

In Indonesia, there are no regulations requiring the Ministry of Manpower to receive complaints from domestic workers, and the ministry does not conduct any monitoring of the informal sector, which includes domestic work. Officials in two local manpower offices did tell Human Rights Watch that a domestic worker who was not paid her salary could file a complaint and receive assistance in settling the case. But these officials had no data on complaints, nor could they recall any such case being filed.104

A local regulation in Jakarta gives domestic workers the right to annual leave, regular payment of salaries, clothing, food, rest and housing. It does not, however, specify hours of work per day, rest periods, or a minimum wage for domestic workers.105 An ILO study concluded that the regulation has not worked because public and government officials are unaware of the law, there are no mechanisms to monitor its implementation, and sanctions for violations are mild.106 When asked how disputes over wages are settled, the lawyer for a domestic worker supplier agency in Jakarta said the agency asks the governor’s office to intervene. “If they are not able to clear the problem, they leave it to us to report to the police and the police make a determination from this. If the police say there are not witnesses and your people are lying, we leave it to God.”107

In countries where national legislation does recognize domestic workers but grants them labor rights that are inferior to those of workers in other sectors, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, monitoring and enforcement is weak to non-existent.  The ministries of labor in these two countries do not proactively monitor working conditions in private households, nor do they keep employment records or gather statistics on domestic workers. Few domestic workers seek redress in the labor ministry in part due to lack of awareness of their rights, fear of retaliation, and a basic mistrust of the system.  In 2002, for example, the Salvadoran labor ministry handled just forty-one cases involving domestic workers out of a total caseload of 2,900 labor complaints.108  Enforcement of national minimum age laws, which might rescue the youngest child domestics from abusive situations, also tends to be weak in most countries, and such laws are often not enforced at all in situations of child domestic labor.

Efforts by rights activists to remedy discrimination against domestic workers in national and local legislation are often met with resistance.  In Guatemala, one NGO has been lobbying without success for years for a separate law to regulate paid household labor guaranteeing domestic workers the same rights as other Guatemalan workers and to require employers to permit inspection by officials from the labor ministry.  Efforts by local NGOs in Yogyakarta and Jakarta, in Indonesia, to achieve legislation protecting domestic workers’ rights at the provincial level have met with resistance from the local government, as well as employers, to setting a minimum wage, hours of work, and to providing a weekly day of rest for domestics. In Morocco, amendments to the 2003 labor code provided for separate legislation governing domestic work, but as of this writing the government has yet to submit a draft law.

The response of labor-sending countries to abuse of migrant domestic workers is mixed. The Philippines has developed the most protective and rights-based system for overseeing labor migration through the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). The POEA issues migrant domestic workers a standard contract stipulating a minimum wage and one day off per week. Much of Indonesia’s response, by contrast, has focused on training prospective migrant workers, rather than directly addressing employer abuse or strengthening measures to hold abusive employers and labor agents accountable. The Indonesian government continues to allow labor agencies to manage the recruitment and training process without adequate oversight.

Labor-receiving countries also have varying records. Hong Kong provides a model that few others have emulated: domestic workers are included in its main labor laws, protecting their rights to a weekly day of rest, a minimum wage, maternity leave and public holidays. In Singapore, where domestic workers are excluded from these basic rights, the Ministry of Manpower has published a non-binding guide for employers of migrant domestic workers and introduced compulsory orientation programs for both new migrants and new employers. An employer who has cycled through five domestic workers in one year is now required to attend an orientation as well. Finally, the government has established an accreditation scheme for all new employment agencies and those seeking to renew their licenses. Standard employment contracts developed by accrediting bodies require that domestic workers be provided adequate food, rest and lodging, but they do not specify maximum hours of work or periods of continuous rest. At the time of writing, Singapore was debating a new standard contract that will provide for one day off per month, but this provision can be waived if the employer agrees to pay the worker compensation, a provision that can easily be abused.

The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on migrant workers in 2004 that excluded domestic workers, and despite promises to swiftly adopt a specific MoU on these workers, this was finalized only in May 2006. The latter MoU failed to provide meaningful new protections to domestic workers and for the most part, retains the status quo. In an effort to combat withholding of wages, the Malaysian government is considering a law that would require employers of migrant domestic workers to open a joint bank account in the worker’s and employer’s names and deposit their wages on a monthly basis.109


To Labor Ministries

  • Ensure that national labor codes guarantee domestic workers the same rights as other workers with respect to written contracts, minimum wage, overtime, weekly day of rest, limited workday, rest periods during the day, national holidays, vacation and social security, and provide for effective penalties for violating the law.
  • Enact regulations to monitor labor supply agencies and workplace conditions, providing for authorization for labor inspectors to monitor private households, conduct unannounced visits and interview domestic workers privately about working conditions.
  • Require by law that domestic worker supplier agencies and employers deposit copies of written contracts with the labor ministry specifying hours of work and rest each day, weekly day of rest, vacation, wages, types of work, adequate food and accommodations, health insurance, medical expenses for workplace injuries, length of employment; and procedures for payment of wages, social security, and termination of work.
  • Investigate and launch systems for employers and domestic workers to track all salary payments. Conduct spot checks of salary payment records. Where relevant, governments should help domestic workers set up bank accounts and systems for automatic payments from employers.
  • Require by law that domestic supplier agencies:
    • Prepare work contracts fully informing employers and domestic workers of their rights and obligations;
    • Review birth certificates or compulsory education certificates of prospective domestic workers prior to recruiting them for domestic work to ensure compliance with minimum age laws;
    • Fully disclose in writing and orally any recruiting or placement fees to both domestic workers and employers prior to recruitment and placement.
  • Publish and distribute guides for domestic workers setting forth their rights, and the legal responsibilities of employers, domestic worker supplier agencies, and other informal recruiters. Help regional and local governments launch public awareness campaigns, using print media, radio and television to disseminate the information.

To Heads of State and Government, and Parliaments

  • Set a minimum wage if none exists. Ensure that wages are not set by discriminatory criteria such as national origin, but rather based on skills and experience.
  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, the ILO Minimum Age Convention, the ILO Discrimination Convention, and all other relevant ILO conventions.

[70] Comment provided to Human Rights Watch by fax by Oscar Barahona Streber, San José, Costa Rica, November 29, 2000.

[71] Human Rights Watch telephone interview  with Liliana Martínez, Peruvian domestic worker, Washington D.C., United States, April 17, 2000.

[72] Asian Migrant Centre, “Systematic Extortion of Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong,” [online] (retrieved April 6, 2006).

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with Samira M., child domestic worker, age sixteen, Casablanca, Morocco, May 17, 2005.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Lastri, child domestic worker, age fifteen, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, December 2, 2004.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Shadia A., child domestic worker, age fifteen at time of employment, Casablanca, Morocco, May 27, 2005.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Edna, Filipina domestic worker, age thirty, Quezon City, Philippines, December 21, 2003.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with Flor N., child domestic worker, age seventeen, San Salvador , El Salvador, February 18, 2003.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with Daniela Santos Pérez, Guatemalan child domestic worker, age fourteen at time of employment, Guatemala City, June 11, 2000.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Marites Padilla, Filipina domestic worker, age twenty-nine, Singapore, March 9, 2005.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Mónica F., child domestic worker, age seventeen, San Salvador , El Salvador, February 18, 2003.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with Dita Wulansih, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, February 19, 2005.

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with Kafui A., child trafficking victim, age eleven, Lomé, Togo, May 15, 2002.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Rita Yuboc, Filipina domestic worker, age twenty-four, Singapore, February 21, 2005.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with Aisyah Fatah, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-one, Singapore, March 4, 2005.

[85] Sim Chi Yin, “Still can’t walk after 10 months,” The New Paper, February 20, 2004.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Flor Montales,Filipina domestic worker, age thirty-eight, Dubai, UAE, February 27, 2006.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with Zahra H., child domestic worker, age seventeen, Casablanca, Morocco, May 17, 2005.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Vina, child domestic worker, age thirteen at time of employment, Medan, Indonesia, December 15, 2004.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Jesica Gutierrez García, Guatemalan domestic worker, age twenty-three, Guatemala City, June 18, 2000.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Asma, child domestic worker, age fifteen, Medan, Indonesia, December 13, 2004.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with Julia Domingo, Guatemalan domestic worker, age twenty-one, Guatemala City, Guatemala, June 4, 2000.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview with Anita, Filipina domestic worker, age twenty-seven, Naguilan, La Union, Philippines, December 13, 2003.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with Lastri, child domestic worker, age fifteen, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, December 2, 2004.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with Rohani, child domestic worker, Semarang, Indonesia, December 6, 2004.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with Samira M., child domestic worker, age sixteen, Casablanca, Morocco, May 17, 2005.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with Rosalia, Filipina domestic worker, age thirty-five, Quezon City, Philippines, December 16, 2003.

[97] Human Rights Watch interview with Dwiyani, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, February 22, 2005.

[98] UDHR, arts. 23 and 24.

[99] ICESCR, art. 7.

[100] ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention), adopted June 17, 1999, 38 I.L.M. 1207 (entered into force November 19, 2000), art. 3(d). ILO Convention No. 95 on the Protection of Wages, adopted July 1, 1949 (entered into force September 24, 1952);ILO Convention No. 155 concerning Occupational Safety and Health, adopted June 22, 1981, 1331 U.N.T.S. 279 (entered into force August 11, 1983);Convention No. 111 concerning Discrimination in Respect to Employment and Occupation, adopted June 25, 1958, 362 U.N.T.S. 31 (entered into force June 15, 1960);and ILO Convention No. 183 concerning Maternity Protection (Revised), 2000, adopted June 15, 2000 40 I.L.M. 2 (entered into force February 7, 2002).

[101] UDHR, art. 2; ICCPR, art. 2(1); CEDAW, art. 1; CRC, art. 2; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), adopted December 21, 1965, G.A. Res. 2106 (XX), 660 U.N.T.S. 195 (entered into force January 4, 1969),, art. 1; Migrant Workers Convention, art. 7.

[102] UDHR, art. 7; ICCPR, art. 26.

[103] CEDAW, art. 11(d).

[104] Human Rights Watch interview with Bambang Praytino, Office of Manpower and Transmigration, Province of Central Java, Semarang, December 7, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with Jamunuddin Marbun, unit head, Industrial Relations, Office of Manpower and Transmigration, Province of North Sumatra, Medan, December 14, 2004.

[105] Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Pramuwisma Di Daerah Khusus Ibukota Jakarta, Nomor 6 Tahun 1993 (Regional Regulation of Jakarta Special Province No. 6/1993 on Improving the Welfare of Domestic Workers), June 19, 2003.

[106] ILO-IPEC, Bunga-bunga di Atas Padas: Fenomena Pekerja Rumah Tangga Anak Di Indonesia (Flowers on the Rock: Phenomenon of Child Domestic Workers in Indonesia) (Jakarta: ILO, 2004),  p. 163.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramahadas Fro Marss, lawyer at Asosiasi Pengelola Pramuwisma Seluruh Indonesia, domestic worker supplier agency, Jakarta, November 30, 2004.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview with Edmundo Alfredo, chief of industrial and commercial inspection, Ministry of Labor, San Salvador, El Salvador, February 13, 2003.

[109] Ibid.

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