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Strengthening laws to protect migrant domestic workers

10 October 2013 | by Oliver Pearce

Nela worked 14 to 18 hours every day, caring for her elderly employer in every aspect of her daily life, from bathing to feeding her. She even stayed close by at night to tend to her needs.

She barely slept two hours a night, while meals were so sparse she lost 7kg in five months. Payment, which was well below the minimum wage, was often delayed, and took no account of the overtime she worked, including weekends. Or the occasions when she had to clean her employer’s son’s house.

False promises

This reality was very different from what she had imagined, when she paid $7,000 dollars to an agency in India to arrange work for her in Israel, intending to send money back to her family. 

She was told she would work for an elderly woman for a salary of $625 a month, plus weekly allowance and payment for vacations. 

When the promises failed to materialise, Nela turned to her agency for help. However, they ordered her to stay; claiming that according to her contract, she was not allowed to quit under any circumstances.

Drop-in centre in Tel Aviv, providing practical advice and legal aid

Christian Aid partner Kav LaOved run a drop-in centre in their office in Tel Aviv for care-givers twice a week, providing practical advice and legal aid to those with problems.

Domestic workers around the world

Unfortunately Nela’s story is not unique. Millions of domestic workers around the world are employed in private homes, hidden from official sight and vulnerable to exploitation. 

As the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has noted: ‘Female migrant workers engaged in domestic services are one of the most vulnerable groups of migrant workers... They are often subject to exploitation and/or physical and sexual violence by their employers or clients.'

Civil society and charity organisations exist in various countries that support and protect such women, informing them of the few rights that they might have. But labour laws in most countries do not extend as far as migrant domestic workers.

Domestic labour in the Middle East

Domestic labour is commonplace worldwide but is especially widespread in the Middle East. The ILO estimates that between a quarter and a third of the 22 million migrant workers in the region are women engaged domestically.

Israel

In Israel, roughly 50,000 migrant workers from countries like the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India are employed as round-the-clock caregivers for the elderly and those with disabilities. They are a section of the workforce entirely excluded from employment law which covers factors such as hours and conditions.

Lebanon

Further north, in Lebanon, where demand for migrant domestic workers has increased over the past 10 to 15 years, there are now more than 200,000 migrant domestic workers.

They are routinely denied their rights, including the right to resign except in extreme circumstances - such as pay being withheld for three months, or physical or sexual abuse (which requires medical certification). If they resign they risk detention for breach of contract

Egypt

In Egypt, there are some 245,000 migrant workers, a sizeable proportion of whom are believed to be employed on the domestic front. The country’s labour laws entirely exclude this category of worker, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and violation of their rights.

International support

Alongside the General Assembly, the UN-sponsored High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development will host a two day meeting, looking at how to improve rights for migrants, and the international mechanisms which support them.  

We urge delegates at the conference to agree steps which mean that migrant workers have the same rights and protections as other workers. Not least for domestic workers, who are often forgotten in discussions about migrant workers’ rights.

ILO domestic workers convention

Two years ago the ILO adopted the new domestic workers Convention 189, which, if implemented, would protect their rights. 

However, many countries have yet to ratify the convention, including the UK, which abstained from the vote.

Christian Aid is working with local partner organisations such as Kav LaOved in Israel, and also in Egypt and Lebanon to put pressure on governments and employers to apply the standards set out in the ILO Convention to ensure that domestic workers' rights are recognised and upheld.

Implementing the standards in the ILO Convention would mean that migrant domestic workers would be accorded equivalent rights to other workers, in fundamental areas such as pay and hours of work, social security entitlements and health and safety.

There are also specific protections relating to being a migrant worker (where relevant), such as outlawing the deduction of agency fees from the salaries of domestic workers, which places them in debt bondage, and the confiscation of passports by employers.

Civil society

Civil society organisations have joined together to promote clear recommendations for the High Level Dialogue. These suggestions resonate with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Rapporteur on Migration suggested commitments for governments. 

This encouraging convergence must be used to ensure that governments, employers, unions, workers and civil society organisations harness agreed goals to make real changes for migrant workers such as Nela.

How you can help

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Find out more

View our interactive timeline, detailing our work in the Middle East over 60 years.

Oliver's blog was also published in The Guardian.

Christian Aid's work in the Middle East.

Press release: protecting UK domestic workers' rights

Partner focus: Kav LaOved

  

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About the author

Oliver Pearce is Christian Aid's economic justice programme manager for the Middle East.

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