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V. Migrant domestic workers

My parents had no more work, they have no land. I went to Manila to find a job in electronics.… [But] I couldn’t afford to give money to my family when I was working in the Philippines. I came to Singapore only to sacrifice for them.
—Cristina Lopez, Filipina domestic worker, age thirty-two, Singapore, February 20, 2005

A combination of push and pull factors contribute to the growing ranks of migrant domestic workers. Wealthy countries in the West and the Middle East, and fast-growing economies in Asia, rely on labor migration to fill low-paying, labor-intensive jobs with poor working conditions. Paid domestic workers help free women in expanding middle classes to work outside the home, where increased access for women to the formal labor market has not been matched with appropriate family-friendly working conditions and childcare options.

For many women and girls, migration into domestic work, sometimes very far from their homes and at great personal cost, may appear to be their only option to support themselves and their families. Increased rural poverty occasioned by structural adjustment programs, economic crises and the devastation of the agricultural sector in many countries have pushed women and girls into the domestic labor market. For labor-sending countries, the “export” of labor has become an increasingly important strategy for addressing unemployment, generating foreign exchange, and fostering economic growth. Remittances have grown steadily over the past three decades and the World Bank estimated that migrant workers from developing countries sent U.S.$167 billion home in 2005.156 According to the International Monetary Fund, “For many developing countries, remittances constitute the single largest source of foreign exchange, exceeding export revenues, foreign direct investment (FDI), and other private capital inflows.”157 For example, Filipino migrant workers, mostly women, sent home U.S.$11.6 billion dollars in 2004—13.5 percent of the country’s GDP.158

The millions of women and girls who migrate across borders for domestic work bolster the economies of both their countries of origin and of employment. Despite prospering from these women’s labor, associated taxes, and remittances, governments have failed to guarantee basic human rights protections. Instead, domestic workers confront the risk of exploitation and abuse at every stage of the migration cycle, including recruitment, transit, employment and return. Employment agencies involved in the recruitment and training of prospective migrant domestic workers may charge exorbitant fees, provide incomplete or misleading information about working conditions, and, in some countries such as Indonesia, subject women and girls to pre-departure abuses in training centers. Once abroad, migrant domestic workers are often subject to highly restrictive and discriminatory immigration regulations, and may find themselves living with abusive employers. Upon return, many domestic workers face extortion at ports and on their journey home.

Many domestic workers may find responsible employers who treat them well, pay them regularly, and ensure appropriate working conditions. These workers often form the basis of the widespread perceptions in their home countries of lucrative and exciting jobs abroad. Unfortunately, finding a decent employment situation is often a matter of luck and not a guarantee. And those who are not so lucky may become trapped in highly exploitative situations with few exit options.

Several factors contribute to migrant domestic workers’ isolation, financial stress, and limited access to assistance. Many can see no way out of abusive situations. Already in debt, they typically face more fees and salary deductions if they attempt to transfer employment or return to their home countries before completing their employment contracts. Because work permits are tied to the individual employer, leaving or losing one’s job typically means immediate repatriation. Many employers confiscate their domestic workers’ passports and work permits, meaning women and girls fleeing abusive situations can face arrest and immigration detention. Many employers also restrict domestic workers from talking to neighbors or leaving the place of employment independently. The isolation and desperation that domestic workers feel may contribute to the high number of suicides.

The devastating experiences of migrant domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch who originated from or worked in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States bear witness to the pressing need for governments, the international community, civil society, and donors to prioritize the defense of migrant domestic workers’ rights and freedoms.

Recruitment and training

In the training center, it was very bad… We received rice once a day and in the morning bread… I was there for three months… The gate was always locked. The security guard had the key.  If my friends ran away, the rest of the girls received punishments. They wouldn’t give us food for a day or we would have to do three or four hundred push-ups.

I was so depressed… I was so tired once [during training], I fell asleep. The staff woke me up and made me do two hundred sit-ups until I almost fainted. Sometimes they used very harsh words, like, “If you’re not successful, you’ll become a prostitute!” They used all bad words… They didn’t explain the employment contract, I just had to sign it. I did not receive a copy. I did not know what was inside.
—Dewi Haryanti, age twenty, Indonesian domestic worker, Singapore, February 27, 2005

In Asia, the large numbers of women migrating for work, as well as the demand for cheap domestic labor, has created a lucrative market for employment agencies specializing in domestic workers. These agencies are typically involved in recruitment, training, transportation, and placement of domestic workers. They often play a central role in handling disputes between employers and workers. Inadequate regulation and inadequate government oversight combine to give employment agencies enormous influence over the fates of migrant domestic workers. In many cases agencies set the conditions of employment, including wages and rest days. Migrant domestic workers are subject to deception and abuse by labor agencies in their home countries as well as the counterpart agency in the receiving country.

Labor agents often give incomplete or false information about the terms of employment and burden prospective domestic workers with onerous debts. For domestic workers migrating to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, the recruitment fees are typically paid through long-term salary deductions (as described above in Chapter II), . If they are migrating to the Middle East, they typically pay a large fee upfront to the local recruiter, often financed through loans with interest rates as high as 100 percent. With a vested interest in recovering their investment, employment agencies routinely fail to protect workers from employer abuse. Sometimes, labor agents are directly responsible for the abuse.

The Philippines and Sri Lanka have more developed regulatory frameworks for monitoring migration than other labor-sending countries. Migrant domestic workers from these countries tend to encounter far more abuses when they go through unlicensed agents versus those approved by their labor ministries. In Indonesia, where there are over four hundred licensed domestic employment agencies and countless illegal ones, lack of effective government oversight, corruption, and the bureaucratic structure of labor recruitment increase the risks of exploitation of prospective migrant domestic workers.

Indonesian women migrating for domestic work often first come into contact with a local labor recruiter from their village.  These recruiters usually do not receive a regular salary but rather work on commission for several different employment agencies, sometimes for both licensed agencies and illegal agents simultaneously. This system increases the possibility that prospective migrant workers may think they are going through legal channels but may actually, unbeknownst to them, obtain fraudulent or incorrect documents at some point in the process. Migrating illegally typically places migrant workers at higher risk for abuses at all stages of the migration process and severely limits their access to redress. Although women migrating for domestic work to Asia through legal channels should not have to pay recruitment fees up front, but rather through salary deductions, it is common for labor recruiters to extort sometimes large sums of money from prospective migrant workers.  

Labor agents in Indonesia often fail to provide prospective domestic workers with complete information about their working conditions and their rights. Many migrant domestic workers told Human Rights Watch they had signed a contract, but never received their own copy. They were usually not given a full explanation of the terms of the contract or given any opportunity to ask questions. Sample contracts Human Rights Watch obtained, most of them for two years’ employment, generally did not contain a job description detailing workload or types of work, nor did they regulate the hours of work or provide for overtime pay.

Many of the migrant domestic workers we interviewed in Singapore and Malaysia had experienced abuse at the hands of employment agents. These abuses included confiscation of passports, personal belongings and religious items; threats and physical abuse; illegal or dangerous work assignments; and refusal to remove women from abusive employment situations. Muryani Suharti, an Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore whose employer repeatedly raped her, said, “The agency didn’t believe me. They said, ‘if it’s true he forced you, why did it happen so many times?’ It happened because I was afraid. After that, I spent one month at the agency, working part-time for no pay. I told the agent, I want to go back to Indonesia. They told me if I wanted to go I had to pay all the expenses.”159

Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia and Singapore told Human Rights Watch that instead of providing information on options should the workers face abuse or other problems, labor agents barraged them with threats and lectures about their “obligations” not to run away, to obey their employers, and to work hard. Tita Sari, a twenty-four-year-old Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia, told us,

If the employer does something bad to the maid, the agent does not care or pay attention to the problem, even if the employer rapes the maid.  I know many cases like this. If the employer hits them, and they write to the agent, the agent blames them and hits them too. The agent can’t be believed—the agent and the employer are the same.160

The lack of information puts domestic workers at risk of exploitation and abuse by unscrupulous agents and employers. For instance, only a few Indonesian domestic workers whom we interviewed in Malaysia were even aware of the presence of the Indonesian embassy in Malaysia and that they could turn there for help.

Prospective migrant domestic workers in Indonesia are required to complete a training course before departure. Women expecting to spend one or at the most two months in training often find themselves trapped in a months-long ordeal in overcrowded centers with substandard conditions. Migrant domestic workers in Malaysia and Singapore told Human Rights Watch of prison-like conditions, inadequate food and water, and verbal and physical abuse.

Employment agencies restrict the movement of prospective migrant workers for fear of losing their investment—the women’s transportation to the center, food and lodging, the processing of her documents, and the medical exam—that they will only recover after the workers have been placed in employment. Muriyani Suharti, a twenty-two-year-old Indonesian worker in Singapore, said, “The gates were locked and we could not go outside, even with permission. There were security guards. Some women tried to run away… I felt like I was in prison.”161

Conditions in the training centers in Indonesia are often deplorable. Ramnah Mansyur, age twenty-one, described her experience:

I slept on the floor without a mat and used my bag as a pillow. There were three hundred people there, all women… We were staying in a big room with no windows… There were three toilets but two were out of order. The water was not enough and the toilets were dirty. I took a bath twice a week, there were so many people that there were long lines… Many people wanted to run away but didn’t know how… Some of the women had anxiety and were crazy, because it was very scary.162

As in the case at the opening of this section, Human Rights Watch documented cases in which labor agents and trainers verbally and physically abused women in the training centers to punish them for mistakes or as a tool for discipline. As Ira Novianti, twenty, explained, “If we made a mistake, they would get angry with us… Once I had to take [a heavy load of] water on my head and kneel in the sun for two hours because I didn’t want to exercise in the morning. I didn’t have any other problems, but others did. The staff would beat them with sticks and books.”163 Another domestic worker remembered, “The agency would use angry words, bad words, they beat me. They beat me with a tree branch.”164

Restrictions on freedom of movement and association

I never went outside, not even to dump the garbage. I was always inside, I didn’t even go to the market. I felt like I was in jail…. I was not allowed to turn on the radio either…. I could only see the outside world when I hung clothes to dry…. My employer said, “Don’t speak to anyone. Don’t speak to friends or to the neighbors.” I wasn’t allowed to contact my relatives. I worked for three years. I had nobody to talk to. I asked my employers if I could return to Indonesia, and they said no. They said, “You have to make sure you finish your contract before you go back.”… [Even] if I needed a panty liner, one of the children would be sent down to buy it for me.
—Sri Mulyani, Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty, Singapore, February 19, 2005

Employers of domestic workers in a variety of countries use remarkably similar techniques to control and confine their employees, ranging from limiting their ability to contact family and friends, confiscating passports and immigration documents, to forced confinement in the household. Employers, agents, and even governments often defend these practices as necessary to protect the employer’s household, the privacy of the family, and the personal security of the domestic worker, and to prevent workers from running away. Arbitrary denial of freedom of movement and association is abusive in its own right, and, as already noted elsewhere in this report, dramatically increases the vulnerability of domestic workers to economic exploitation, forced labor, intimidation, and sexual violence and harassment.

Employers typically impose severe restrictions on domestic workers’ ability to communicate with the outside world. Domestic workers are often prohibited from using the household phone and from sending or receiving letters, and they are discouraged—often under threat of physical or other penalty—from talking with neighbors, other domestic workers, or shop-keepers. In some cases, this means migrant domestic workers are unable to communicate with their families. Mahiri Sopian, an Indonesian domestic worker in Kuala Lumpur who had family in Malaysia, told us,

My family sent me their phone number, but my employer kept it and did not give it to me. I cried inside. My father sent the addresses of my family in Malaysia, but my employer kept it and only gave it to me when I returned to Indonesia. I never visited my relatives in Malaysia. My family thought I had died.165

Labor agents may be the first to condemn domestic workers to isolation, by stripping them of contact information and supporting employer restrictions on their movements and ability to communicate. Dewi Haryanti, an Indonesian domestic worker, said when she arrived in Singapore, “The labor agents searched our bodies. If they found letters or money, they took it, we couldn’t carry any addresses. They took it and they burned it, including telephone numbers.”166 Agents may also counsel employers to deny domestic workers a day off or restrict their communications. One agent in Singapore said point-blank, “I’m against maids having friends. When they go down to the playground, they talk… [Employers] leave their house to the maid, they don’t know if their friends are good or bad. They leave their small babies with them.”167 Another agent in Singapore said, “Some employers are very easy and give off days. I tell these employers, ‘you will spoil them.’”168

Domestic workers who breach employer rules about communicating with people outside the household may face severe retribution. A Filipina domestic worker in Singapore said her employer physically punished her when she spoke with the Indonesian maid next door. “When I threw out the rubbish, I would talk to her. Once I was outside just a few minutes… She [my employer] was very angry and pinched my two ears. She pinched and pulled my two ears and blood came out. This happened twice.”169 Aisyah Fatah, a domestic worker whose employer did not provide her adequate food, was fired from her job in Singapore after she defied the prohibition from leaving the house to visit a nearby store. She said her trip to the store “is the reason my employer returned me to the agency… I had gone to buy coffee and bread.”170

Human Rights Watch spoke with migrant domestic workers who had been been employed in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States whose employers forcefully confined them in the workplace. Edna, a thirty-year-old Filipina who is married with two children, worked for two years in a household in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. During that time, her employers forbade her from leaving the house, with the exception of once or twice a month when she accompanied her employer to the home of the woman’s mother, where she was required to do housework for several hours. When her employers went out, they locked Edna inside.171

Intimidation and threats are often as effective as locked doors in keeping domestic workers confined to the household. Rokeya Akhatar, a Bangladeshi domestic worker employed by a Middle Eastern businessman in the United States from July to September 1998, recalled, “I couldn’t go out for even one second… I wasn’t allowed to leave the house [alone] at all. [The family] told me that if I went outside, the police would arrest me because I did not have my papers [with me]. They said that without a green card, the police would arrest. [They said] America is bad and that it would be bad if I went outside as a single woman, so I never went outside. I was like a bird in a cage.”172 Another domestic worker on a temporary work visa in the United States told Human Rights Watch she was so frightened by what her employer told her that she didn’t go out, even on her day off, for two-and-a-half years.173

Women and girls subjected to forced confinement and deprived of outside contact have little opportunity, if any, to seek help. These conditions lead some women to attempt dangerous escapes. In Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, an official at the King Fahd General Hospital reported in 2002 that two or three migrant women were being admitted on a weekly basis with serious fractures sustained in escape or suicide attempts from upper stories of their places of employment. A Filipina domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates said that after her employer returned her to the employment agency:

I was locked up inside the agency for forty-five days. We were Indonesians and Filipinos, twenty-five 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.174

Eri Sudewo, an Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore, was rescued from a household where she had worked for two years without ever going outside, after tossing a letter pleading for help to a neighboring domestic worker. She told Human Rights Watch:

The outside door was locked. All the doors were locked, only the bathroom was open. The kitchen was locked. For one day, one week at a time, I would never eat anything. I was hungry, what could I do?... I had no day off, I never went outside. When the Filipina maid went outside to throw the rubbish, she would tell me [through the window], you must run, if you stay you will die.175

Legal status

It’s very hard here. I know the laws, and that’s why I’m scared. I hear rumors, if we don’t have a passport, then if we get caught by the police, they put us in the lock-up, then they put us in the jungle in very scary places.
—Kusmirah Parinem, Indonesian domestic worker, Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia, February 14, 2004

Migrant domestic workers on temporary employment-based visas encounter severely limited options for leaving abusive working conditions and for seeking redress. Employer and labor agency practices of confiscating passports and work permits compound the helplessness of these workers. Human Rights Watch met with women in Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the United States who felt they had no choice but to endure at times intolerable abuses for fear of arrest, detention, and deportation.

Employment-based visa structures in many countries contribute to situations that give rise to domestic worker abuse. In all four countries listed above, domestic workers who leave their employers, even for reasons of abuse, risk losing their legal status and may be imprisoned, fined and deported. While workers in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, the United States and, as of recently, Malaysia may attempt to transfer employers, this option may be limited, include punitive conditions such as transfer fees, and leave workers open to involuntary repatriation. Employers in Singapore, for example, have the right to deny a transfer during or even at the end of the standard two-year contract, and may repatriate their domestic workers at will. This creates a strong power imbalance, especially when domestic workers are under financial stress to repay their debts or earn money to send home to families.  Domestic workers on special employment visas in the United States working in the homes of foreign diplomats or officials in international organizations may only change employers under specific, rarely fulfilled conditions.

Malaysia’s strict enforcement of its punitive immigration laws (see below), combined with the routine employer practice of confiscating passports, deter women from seeking help even when caught in abusive situations. Odah Bustami, a seventeen-year-old Indonesian domestic worker who had been confined to her employer’s house, verbally and physically abused, and cheated out of her full salary, explained, “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.”176

Human Rights Watch found that employers in Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States routinely confiscate passports and work permits, if indeed the workers are ever given possession of these permits in the first place. Migrant workers who escape their employers without valid identification documents face the risk of arrest and immigration detention.

Detention centers in Malaysia are often overcrowded, have substandard living conditions, and provide inadequate food. Detainees sleep on the floors without any bedding. Sadiah, age thirty-seven, told Human Rights Watch about her experience:

“There were seventy-seven people in one room, all women… There were ten young girls. We had vegetables and rice, it was not enough food and I was hungry. They gave us food twice a day. The toilet was not clean… They would beat people sometimes, [but] they never beat or yelled at me.”177

Unless a detainee has a friend or family member willing to pay for their ticket home, it can be months before an individual’s embassy or the Malaysian government finally arranges for her deportation.

Adelina, a Filipina domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, was detained and held in prison on charges of forgery because her residency permit was not authentic. She pointed out that these permits are written in Arabic, which she cannot read, and that it is Saudi employers who are responsible for providing workers with these official identification documents. “How would I know that it was a fake? It’s so unfair that I should be the one in prison,” she argued.178

Immigration policies also have the effect of discouraging migrant domestic workers from lodging formal complaints against abusive employers. For example, migrant domestic workers must apply for a “special pass” to stay in Malaysia to pursue civil and criminal complaints; these carry the prohibitive cost of 100 ringgit (U.S.$26.31) per month and do not allow the women to seek new employment for what can be a months-long investigation and trial. Faced with an indefinite stay, confined in a shelter, unable to earn money, and eager to return home after traumatic experiences, most migrant domestic workers avoided pressing charges, or dropped them even in cases where the police had arrested the employer. Ani Rukmono, a twenty-two-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, had been confined in her employer’s household, forbidden from using the telephone or writing or receiving letters, prohibited from fasting or praying, made to sleep on the floor in the kitchen or in front of the television, and regularly beaten. Ani told Human Rights Watch, “I was beaten every day and swollen. I was beaten badly three times, and the third time, my head was bleeding and my body broke and I lost consciousness.”179 After the abuse was reported to police, she nonetheless dropped the criminal charges against her employer and settled for less than full payment of her salary because it would have taken too long to bring the case to trial.


They said they would cut my salary for seven months…If I changed employers, they would cut three more months. If I changed employers [repeatedly], I would come back with no money.
—Wati Widodo, age twenty, Indonesian domestic worker, Singapore, March 10, 2005

Employment agencies typically charge migrant domestic workers a recruitment and placement fee. Agencies in Singapore charge workers between S$1,400 (U.S.$875) and S$2,100 (U.S.$1,312), while licensed agencies in Indonesia charge U.S.$1,500. Unable to pay such large fees, domestic workers reach agreements with agents and employers to turn over their first several months of pay. Indonesians working in Singapore and Malaysia typically begin working with deductions of six to ten months’ salary; Sri Lankans and Filipinas often have three to six months salary withheld. Illegal agencies operating in Indonesia tend to charge an initial fee—usually 1.5-2 million rupiah (U.S.$183-244)—that most domestic workers wishing to migrate pay by borrowing from the agent, village moneylenders, family or friends at usurious interest rates. Domestic workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka also borrow money to pay initial medical and passport fees, sometimes mortgaging their land.

Exorbitant initial fees and long debt repayment periods place migrant workers in a highly vulnerable position. Migrant domestic workers feel enormous pressure to keep working as long as they can so they can repay their debt and start earning a salary, even when faced with intolerable situations.  Ramnah Mansyur’s story is all too common. A twenty-one-year-old Indonesian woman whose employer in Malaysia fondled her, hugged her, offered to pay her money to have sex, and came into her bed at night and tried to touch her, she told Human Rights Watch, “The lady didn’t know. I was afraid to tell her because the man was threatening me, ‘don’t tell my wife or you will see’…Since I knew I had to pay back three months of salary, I tried to withstand it.”180

Employment agents similarly have a strong interest in workers’ remaining at a job until they have repaid their debt, and are thus less likely to help a worker out of an abusive situation. Wati Widodo, a twenty-year-old Indonesian working in Singapore, was compelled to stay with an employer who physically abused her in order to pay off her debt:

When I told the agent the employer had slapped me, she just said, “you must suffer. You should control your feelings.” If a maid hasn’t finished her salary deduction, and she calls the agent, the agent is angry.  The agent also slapped me; they didn’t want me to leave without finishing the contract and the salary deduction.181

Indonesian workers in Malaysia reported that labor agents told them or implied that if they did not repay debts or complete the two-year contracts, they would face large fines or be trafficked into forced prostitution. A recurring threat appears to be that women will be sent to Batam, an area notorious for sex trafficking. One domestic worker said agents threatened them with retaliation against their friends still in training centers back in Indonesia awaiting placement. “We had to take care of our friends,” she said, “so we had to keep quiet.” 182

The fees charged by Singaporean employment agencies for transferring employment contribute to keeping women in abusive working conditions. Agents often charge daily rates for food and lodging for the period between employment, often between S$10-20 (U.S.$6-12) per night, and a fee for the transfer, which can range from one to three months’ salary. Endang Utari, an Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore, paid even more when she requested a transfer from an employer. She explained, “The deduction was very high. I stayed with the agency for one month only but they deducted four months of my salary. Four months for the transfer and seven months for the initial fee—how come?”183

Unreasonably heavy debts, when combined with other conditions such as forced confinement, work under threat, and deception about working conditions, can give rise to situations of forced labor and debt bondage. This is discussed more fully in Chapter II, above.

Reproductive, marriage and sexual rights

I am single… we are working, we must follow the rules. The employer pays a S$5,000 (U.S.$2,950) bond so maids won’t get pregnant or marry a Singaporean…. I want to have a boyfriend… but my employer says I cannot.
—Michele Udarbe, age forty-two, Filipina domestic worker, Singapore, February 23, 2005

National laws and immigration policies in several countries restrict migrant domestic workers’ reproductive, marriage and sexual rights.  These workers face pregnancy-based discrimination both pre-departure and once in employment. If they become pregnant after placement, they will be forced to choose between carrying a pregnancy to term and keeping their jobs. Securing voluntary abortions, even in cases of rape, can be difficult if not impossible in countries like Saudi Arabia. Immigration policies, as in Singapore, that forbid migrant domestic workers from marrying nationals of the country where they are employed violate their rights to freely enter marriage and decide for themselves matters relating to their private lives.

Attempts to control workers’ sex lives and relationships often reflect an underlying fear that foreign women workers pose a sexual and social threat to families. They also reinforce the commonly-held and self-serving stereotypes about domestic workers being promiscuous that employers use to justify restricting migrant domestic workers’ freedom of movement.

Immigration policies in many countries of employment require that all migrant workers be tested for pregnancy (as well as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases) before they arrive.  Workers either pay for these tests themselves or the cost is included in their initial salary deduction. Employers and labor agents often re-test workers upon arrival in the host country.  Prospective migrant domestic who test positive for pregnancy will be denied entry or deported; in some cases, they are given the option to have an abortion as a precondition for remaining and entering employment. Indonesian domestic workers told Human Rights Watch that the procedures for these tests rarely provide for fully informed consent, confidentiality, or counseling or care post-exam. As Ramnah Mansyur explained, “I took a full medical exam, with a blood and urine test. They did not give me the results, they just told me I was ‘fit.’ I also took another exam in Jakarta. Pregnant women failed. They were sent back home, but if they wanted an abortion they could stay. Two girls had an abortion and three went back home.”184

Singapore’s immigration policies similarly discriminate against migrant domestic workers on the basis of reproductive status. These workers must undergo state-mandated medical examinations every six months, including pregnancy and HIV testing, whereas other foreign workers are subject to medical examinations only once every two years. Immigration policies dictate that any domestic worker found to be pregnant must either voluntarily terminate the pregnancy, or lose her job and face deportation.  There is a widespread misconception that domestic workers may not obtain a legal abortion, a procedure that is legal in Singapore until the twenty-fourth week of gestation. Desperate to keep their jobs, some may turn to illegal and unsafe abortions. One labor agent told Human Rights Watch: “Abortion is illegal for maids… Sometimes we become the doctors ourselves, we start buying the pills, mixing them with water!  But if she has caused me trouble, I repatriate her with the baby.”185

Many employers in Singapore also believe they will forfeit the S$5,000 (U.S.$2,950) bond they must put up when they hire a migrant domestic worker if the worker becomes pregnant. Though untrue, this belief serves as a rationale for forbidding their domestic worker from dating and for controlling their domestic workers’ movements. These practices infantilize adult women by assuming they cannot make independent and wise choices about their personal lives; they also can lead to situations of virtual forced confinement.

In the name of controlling unemployment levels, Singapore’s immigration policies also prohibit migrant domestic workers from marrying or cohabitating with Singaporean citizens or permanent residents. The Singaporean Controller of Work Permits is authorized to grant exceptions, but few domestic workers know about this possibility. Apparently, some 15 percent of applications are rejected. If a domestic worker applies to get married to a Singaporean, and the application fails, she may lose her job and be repatriated. Work permit regulations also explicitly forbid domestic workers from “breaking up families in Singapore.”186

In Saudi Arabia, migrant domestic workers living in that country without husbands have faced arrest and imprisonment for becoming pregnant through rape or consensual sex. Consensual sexual relations between unmarried couples are prohibited under the Saudi’s judiciary interpretation of shari’a. In January 2003, Human Rights Watch encountered several young Indonesian women with their newborn babies in Malaz women’s prison in Riyadh, reportedly imprisoned for “illegal pregnancies.” The Indonesian embassy in Riyadh documented in 2001 the cases of ninety-two migrant women who were imprisoned in the Kingdom. Almost half of them had been arrested for being in the company of men who were not their husbands. Another 16 percent were in custody because they were raped, pregnant, or gave birth.

Migrant domestic workers who become pregnant, either through consensual sex or rape, face formidable barriers to securing a voluntary abortion in Saudi Arabia, where legal abortions are not permitted even in cases of rape or incest. Rather, procedures to terminate pregnancies are permitted only for specifically defined and medically documented reasons, for example to save a woman’s life. However,  abortions in such circumstances, if after the fourth month of pregnancy, can only be performed with the written consent of the husband or male guardian.

Language and religion

When I was working, I was not allowed to pray or to fast.
—Tita Sari, domestic worker, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 26, 2004

In some cases, religious intolerance and restrictions on freedom of movement lead to violations of migrant domestic workers’ right to freely practice their religion. In Singapore and Malaysia, Human Rights Watch interviewed migrant domestic workers who reported being forbidden from attending church if they were Christian, or praying or fasting if they were Muslim. In many cases, employment agents were the first to order domestic workers to stop praying, and to confiscate their holy books, prayer shawls, and prayer rugs. Tuti Prihatin, a twenty-six-year-old Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore, told Human Rights Watch, “[T]hey don’t give us freedom to practice our religion… If you want me to stay here, I must practice my religion. If I pray, I remember my God. The Singapore agency took my Holy Koran. It made me very, very sad. Even money is less important to me.”187 The common employer practices of denying a weekly day of rest, confining migrant domestic workers to the household, and prohibiting them from speaking their own language in public also interfere with their right to practice their religion and denies them opportunities to meet and socialize with members of their own community.

Intolerance of religious diversity in Saudi Arabia has been well documented, and migrant workers who are not Muslims but are religiously observant must adjust to the absence of houses of worship for their religious faiths, refrain from public displays of religious symbols, and proceed with private worship in community with others with caution.

International human rights law and government response

In recognition of the abuses that migrants face and their heightened vulnerability by working and living in countries other than their own, the United Nations created a major international human rights treaty, the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (Migrant Workers Convention). Finalized in 1990, the Migrant Workers Convention came into force on July 1, 2003. While several labor-sending countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka have ratified the Convention, most labor-receiving countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have not agreed to be bound by the Convention. The Convention expressly prohibits holding migrant workers in slavery or servitude and requiring migrant workers to perform forced or compulsory labor, and guarantees migrants a range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.

International law protects both the right to freedom of movement and the right to freedom of association. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the right to freedom of movement and the right to return to one’s country, as do the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Migrant Workers Convention.188 In addition to its legal basis under treaty law, the right to return to one’s own country has increasingly been recognized as a norm of international customary law. The UDHR and the ICCPR guarantee the right to freedom of association; 189 this right is further developed in several ILO Conventions, most notably the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (Convention No. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (Convention No. 98).

In the most extreme cases, around-the-clock confinement places women workers in conditions of servitude, a violation of one of the most basic protections in international human rights law. The UDHR, the ICCPR, the Migrant Workers Convention and the Supplemental Slavery Convention prohibit servitude and practices similar to slavery. 190 Forced confinement by definition also deprives the victims of the basic rights to liberty and security of person guaranteed in the UDHR and the ICCPR.191

In some cases, forced confinement of migrant women workers may also violate provisions of CEDAW and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). CEDAW requires state parties to “accord to men and women the same rights with regard to the law relating to the movement of persons and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile.”192 CERD requires the government to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination that prevents the enjoyment of the “right to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institution,” and the “right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State.”193

The Migrant Workers Convention reiterates the fundamental right of all people to liberty and security of person and provides for procedural safeguards for migrants who are arrested or detained on a criminal charge, including the right to equality with nationals before the courts and tribunals; the right to be informed in a language they understand of the reasons for the arrest and the charges against them; the right to legal assistance; the right to communicate with consular officials from their own country; and the right to the free assistance of an interpreter in legal proceedings.194 It also prohibits the confiscation and destruction of identity documents and work permits except by a public official duly authorized by law,195 and stipulates that legal migrants shall have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose their residence.196

Pregnancy-based discrimination is a form of sex discrimination proscribed by international law.  CEDAW specifically addresses the issue of reproductive rights in the workforce by requiring all states parties to prevent discrimination against women on the grounds of maternity and bar dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy.197 ILO Convention No. 111 concerning Discrimination in Respect to Employment and Occupation prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex with respect to access to employment and conditions of employment, and the ILO Maternity Protection Convention 2000 (No. 183) calls explicitly on ratifying member states to eradicate pregnancy testing as a form of employment discrimination based on sex.198

International law protects the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. CEDAW prohibits discrimination against women in the field of health care and requires states to take all appropriate measures to eliminate such discrimination “in order to ensure, on a basis of equality between men and women, access to health-care services, including those related to family planning.”199 It also provides that states parties “shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”200 The CEDAW Committee has clarified that states should not restrict women’s access to health services on the grounds that they do not have authorization from husbands, partners, parents or health authorities or on the basis of marital status. It has also called for abolishing laws that “criminalize medical procedures needed [only] by women and punish women who undergo those procedures,” such as abortions.201

The UDHR establishes “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion…and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”202 This right is articulated in various international treaties, including the ICCPR and the Migrant Workers Convention.203 The UDHR and the ICCPR guarantee the right to cultural life and identity; the Migrant Workers Convention stipulates that states parties “ensure respect for the cultural identity of migrant workers… and shall not prevent them from maintaining their cultural links with their State of origin.”204

Increased international attention to the situation of migrants, as well as some high-profile cases of abuse against migrant domestic workers in several countries, has prompted some national-level reforms. For instance, in October 2004 Indonesia adopted Law No. 39/2004 on Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers Overseas. This legislation focused more on recruitment procedures than on protections for migrants, yet represented an effort to begin regulating migration more closely and to provide stronger oversight through national legislation rather than ministerial decrees. Singapore has instituted education programs for both workers and employers and launched important public information campaigns.

Unfortunately, to date most government efforts tend to provide only partial solutions to endemic problems, however, and have failed to address the overall context of discrimination in employment laws and punitive immigration policies that place migrant domestic workers at risk.

Oversight of licensed employment agencies—a key element of any strategy to combat abuses in recruitment and training—is highly inadequate in most countries. The Malaysian Immigration Department, for instance, has a small Housemaid Unit in the Foreign Workers Department, which has the power to remove licenses from labor agencies and to blacklist employers. The unit consisted of two people in 2004 and did no real monitoring or investigation of abuses, receiving few complaints because most domestic workers were unaware of its existence. We were told by one of the staffers in 2004 that the Unit had blacklisted fewer than twenty agencies. In Singapore, the government agency charged with licensing and oversight of employment agencies responds to complaints, but does not use other legal tools at its disposal to curb abuses, such as imposing caps on recruitment fees. In Indonesia, once a labor agency has a license it does not have to undergo a review to renew it periodically. Though the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration has the authority to cancel or suspend licenses, recourse to these measures is rare as the ministry does not monitor labor suppliers regularly or rigorously.

As documented above, immigration policies in receiving countries can discourage migrant workers from reporting abuse. This appears particularly true in Malaysia, where migrant domestic workers who might otherwise attempt to escape abusive situations are terrified by that country’s strict enforcement of immigration laws. Immigration offenses can result in penalties of caning, five years of imprisonment, heavy fines, and indefinite detention. An immigration official in Malaysia told Human Rights Watch: “Our enforcement is quite active. Lots of Indonesians and Filipinas come to be a housemaid, they run away and they get caught. We put them in a detention camp and send them home. We blacklist the maid.”205  In a welcome move, Malaysia amended its laws in August 2004 to allow domestic workers to transfer employers twice during their two-year stint in Malaysia.206 Human Rights Watch had found that the previous prohibition on employment transfers had contributed to keeping migrant domestic workers in abusive work situations.

In most countries, national constitutions guarantee the rights to freedom of movement and association. These provisions may be afforded only to citizens, however, as in Malaysia, leaving migrant workers unprotected. In other countries, government policies have the effect of encouraging employers to restrict their employees’ movements. In a positive move, the Singaporean government amended its criminal code to make forced confinement of a domestic worker an aggravated offense and increased the penalty by 1.5 times. Yet the Singaporean government makes employers pay a S$5,000 (U.S.$2,950) bond for foreign domestic workers, money that will be forfeited if the employee runs away.207 Combined with employers’ fears of domestic workers meeting boyfriends, becoming pregnant, or stealing household items, this contributes to many employers placing tight restrictions on the workers’ mobility and communication with others.

Furthermore, to date enforcement of Singapore’s new penalties for forced confinement has been rare: there were three reported cases of wrongful confinement between January and September 2005. The Ministry of Home Affairs stated that “of the three cases, one offender was warned while no further action was taken in the others as the parties did not want to pursue the matter further.”208

Elsewhere there appears to be widespread tolerance, if not endorsement, of practices that limit domestic workers’ movements. In Saudi Arabia, no concerted steps have been taken to ensure that migrant domestic workers may keep their passports and are provided their government-issued residency permits.  Bilateral agreements between Indonesia and Malaysia actually permit employers to hold foreign workers’ passports.

While most labor-sending countries provide attention to migrant domestic workers who have suffered abuses, the level and quality of assistance varies greatly, and rarely meets the full range of needs these workers have. Embassies in receiving countries typically provide aid to migrant domestic workers who flee abusive situations; some have temporary shelters where workers can live while the embassy assists them in returning home or pressing charges against their employers, while others refer domestic workers to private local shelters. Embassy personnel often mediate settlements between employers and domestic workers over wages. The Indonesian embassy in Malaysia runs a small shelter that is often overcrowded, and domestic workers may have to wait for months before their cases are fully processed due to the high numbers of women seeking shelter and aid. There are limited or no psychological services, a critical gap given the trauma many have suffered.  

In Indonesia, government and NGO representatives have established monitoring systems at Soekarna-Hatta Jakarta International airport to screen returning migrant workers, inform them about their rights, and identify those needing medical attention.


To Labor Ministries

  • Establish mechanisms for regular and independent monitoring of labor agencies to ensure their compliance with regulations on recruitment, training, travel, work placements, and termination of contracts, including through unannounced inspections.
  • Conduct inspections of workplaces and improve mechanisms to investigate and respond to complaints of unpaid wages and abuse.
  • Adopt improved regulations for pre-departure training centers that delineate minimum health and safety conditions, protect women workers’ freedom of movement, outline standards for treatment of trainees. Create effective mechanisms to enforce the regulations.
  • Cap recruitment and agency fees, and regulate salary deduction arrangements.
  • Create and widely disseminate a guide for domestic workers in appropriate languages about their rights and provide orientation to migrant domestic workers upon arrival, including information about workers’ rights and how to seek assistance.
  • Create and publish a guide for employers about the treatment of domestic workers and provide trainings to educate employers about their legal responsibilities, including respecting migrant workers’ rights to freedom of movement, association, and religion.
  • Provide orientation programs for employers and domestic workers.

To Heads of State and Government, and Parliaments

  • Review and repeal immigration polices that have the effect of restricting access to mechanisms for redress for abuses, and adopt immigration policies facilitating the stay and employment of migrant domestic workers while waiting for the completion of an investigation into a labor complaint or criminal prosecution.
  • Adopt multilateral labor agreements that protect migrant domestic workers’ rights by:
    • Establishing recruitment, training and placement policies that fully protect domestic workers’ human rights. Develop a mechanism for monitoring these processes, including workers’ transit to and from the country of employment.
    • Include provisions for a standard contract. The contract should clearly define work responsibilities and include regulations on hours of work, rest days, regular payment of wages, and compensation for injuries. These provisions should meet the standards outlined in national labor laws.
    • Protect migrant domestic workers’ freedom of association, freedom of movement, right to health, and other human rights.
  • Repeal immigration, employment and criminal laws that discriminate against women on the basis of their reproductive status, including ending as an urgent manner the arrest and imprisonment of migrant women who become pregnant through consensual sex or because they were victims of sexual violence.
  • Repeal policies that prohibit migrant domestic workers from marrying, or have the effect of denying their right to sexual autonomy.
  • Ensure migrant domestic workers’ full access to appropriate health care services, including legal family planning services and pre-natal care.

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

  • Guarantee equality to migrant domestic workers in respect to the criminal justice system, including ensuring that all those detained on suspicion of committing a criminal offense have access to free legal aid and the assistance of an interpreter.
  • Implement training programs for police officers and immigration officials to identify trafficking victims and domestic workers who have experienced abuse. The police should have a protocol for handling cases of abuse including immediate health care and social service referrals.
  • Prosecute employers and employment agencies who violate the rights of migrant domestic workers according to national laws, including for forced confinement. Provide civil remedies, including monetary damages that migrant domestic workers can pursue.
  • Impose meaningful penalties on employers who withhold passports and other identification documents from migrant domestic workers.

[156] World Bank, Global Economic Prospects: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration 2006 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2006), p. 87.

[157] International Monetary Fund, “Workers’ Remittances and Economic Development,” World Economic Outlook: Globalization and External Imbalances (Washington D.C.: IMF, 2005), p. 69.

[158] World Bank, Global Economic Prospects, p. 90.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview with Muryani Suharti, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005.

[160] Human Rights Watch interview with Tita Sari, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-four, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 26, 2004.

[161] Human Rights Watch interview with Muriyani Suharti, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005.

[162] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramnah Mansyur, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-one, Lombok, Indonesia, January 26, 2004.

[163] Human Rights Watch interview with Ira Novianti, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty,Lombok, Indonesia, January 25, 2004.

[164] Human Rights Watch interview with Semi binti Muskad, Indonesian domestic worker, Lombok, Indonesia, January 24, 2004.

[165] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahiri Sopian, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-four, Lombok, Indonesia, January 26. 2004.

[166] Human Rights Watch interview with Dewi Haryanti, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, February 27, 2005.

[167] Human Rights Watch interview with employment agent, Singapore, February 23, 2005.

[168] Human Rights Watch interview with employment agent, Singapore, March 1, 2005.

[169] Human Rights Watch interview with Lilia Jornadal, Filipina domestic worker, age twenty-five, Singapore, March 9, 2005.

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

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

[172] Human Rights Watch interview with Rokeya Akhatar, Bangladeshi domestic worker, Astoria, New York, United States, March 5, 2000.

[173] Human Rights Watch interview with Margarita Pérez, Ecuadoran domestic worker, age nineteen at time of employment, Washington D.C., United States, April 8, 2000.

[174] Human Rights Watch interview with Cristina Suarez, Filipina domestic worker, age twenty-six, Dubai, UAE, February 27, 2006.

[175] Human Rights Watch interview with Eri Sudewo, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-three, Singapore, March 4, 2005.

[176] Human Rights Watch interview with Odah Bustami, Indonesian domestic worker, Lombok, Indonesia, January 25, 2004.

[177] Human Rights Watch interview with Sadiah, Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty-seven, Lombok, Indonesia, January 24, 2004.

[178] Letter to Human Rights Watch, January 30, 2003.

[179] Human Rights Watch interview with Ani Rukmono, Indonesian domestic worker, Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia, February 26, 2004.

[180] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramnah Mansyur, Indonesian returned domestic worker, age twenty-one, Lombok, Indonesia, January 26, 2004.

[181] Human Rights Watch interview with Wati Widodo, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, March 10, 2005.

[182] Human Rights Watch interview with Dewi Haryanti, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, February 27, 2005.

[183] Human Rights Watch interview with Endang Utari, Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty-one, Singapore, February 25, 2005.

[184] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramnah Mansyur, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-one, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 26, 2004.

[185] Human Rights Watch interview with labor agent, Singapore, February 23, 2005.

[186] Conditions of Work Permit/Visa Pass for Foreign Workers, Section 12, Singapore.

[187] Human Rights Watch interview with Tuti Prihatin, Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-six, Singapore, March 26, 2005.

[188] UDHR, art. 13; ICCPR, art.12; and Migrant Workers Convention, art. 8.

[189] UDHR, art. 20 and ICCPR, art. 22.

[190] UDHR, art. 4; ICCPR, art. 8; Migrant Workers Convention, art. 11; and Supplemental Slavery Convention, art. 1.

[191] UDHR, art. 3; ICCPR, art. 9.

[192] CEDAW, art. 15(4).

[193] ICERD, art. 5(b) and (d)(1).

[194] Migrant Workers Convention, art. 16 and 18.

[195] Ibid. ,art. 21.

[196] Ibid., art. 39.

[197] CEDAW, art. 11(2).

[198] ILO Convention No. 183, art. 9(2).

[199] CEDAW, art. 12(1).

[200] Ibid., art. 12(2).

[201] CEDAW Committee, General Recommendation No. 24, Twentieth session, 1999.

[202] UDHR, art. 18.

[203] ICCPR, art. 18; Migrant Workers Convention, art. 12.  It is also guaranteed by article 14 of the Children’s Rights Convention and the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, U.N.G.A. Res. 36/55, November 25, 1981.

[204] Migrant Workers Convention, art. 31.

[205] Human Rights Watch interview with Matthew Barin, assistant director, Housemaid Unit, Foreign Workers Department, Department of Immigration, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 24, 2004.

[206] Asian Migration News, Scalabrini Migration Center bi-weekly information service, “Addressing the problems of foreign domestic workers,” August 15, 2004, [online] (retrieved March 8, 2006).

[207] All U.S. currency figures in this report reflect the exchange rate at the time of the research.

[208] Email correspondence from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore, to Human Rights Watch, November 29, 2005.

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