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Migrant domestic workers

Lucie Detsi from Cameroon in central Afica has been living in Italy for the past 15 years. She is now employed there by an organisation that represents the interests of domestic workers but Lucie arrived in Italy as a student with no skills. To support herself through university she became a domestic worker with four different families. In one household she assisted an elderly woman and in return was given board and lodging, for the others she did the housework and was paid in cash and ‘in kind’. 

The UN Committee on Migrant Workers hosts a day-long seminar to discuss the rights of migrant domestic workers at OHCHRAt no point did any of the families or Lucie herself, make any attempt to give her employment legal status. Eventually the Italian government gave Lucie a grant which enabled her to complete her studies and stop working as a domestic helper.

Lucie told her story at a general discussion on migrant domestic workers organised by the UN Committee on Migrant Workers at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her experiences are common to millions of people, mostly women, in many countries. The UN Population Fund estimates that in Asia, for example, there are more than six million migrants working legally in the more developed countries of the region, the majority of them women, employed as domestic workers. Most of the more than a million undocumented migrants in the region are also employed as domestic workers.

Opening the discussion, the Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaties Division of the UN human rights office, Bacre Ndiaye, said the current economic instability had made migrants as a group more vulnerable than ever. “Migrants are being blamed for taking away jobs from national workers,” he said. This erosion of the rights of migrants makes it all the more important that international standards and monitoring mechanisms are in place to stop the rights of migrant workers being bargained away, he said.

Abuses suffered by migrant domestic workers commonly start at recruitment with many hiring agencies charging huge fees for their services and delivering fraudulent recruitment and employment contracts. The arrangements with employers also often place domestic migrant workers in illegal and abusive situations where they have no recourse of any kind. Additionally, their wages are often low or they are paid in kind and hours of work can be very long with very little time off. 

The situation is exacerbated because as Ndiaye said, “In many countries domestic employment is not recognized as part of regular employment, nor covered by labour legislation, allowing employers to unilaterally impose working conditions that fall woefully short of international standards.”

Migration is a priority issue for the Office of the High Commissioner. In Lebanon, the Office along with the International Labour Organisation assisted the Government in the drafting of a labour contract for domestic workers that offers a common set of standards for migrant domestic workers. They are now collaborating with the Lebanese government to draft legislation which provides a legal framework for the employment of migrant domestic workers.

“Too little attention,” Ndiaye said, “has been focused on migrant domestic workers although they constitute a large portion of today’s migrant worker population.” The discussion will provide input specific to domestic workers in the lead-up to next year’s International Labour Conference which will be considering an international instrument specifically focused on domestic workers.

Lucie says for a long time she was ashamed of the years she spent as a housekeeper but now she says she has a better understanding of the issues and realises that domestic labour is a worthwhile occupation that provides an income and an indispensable support to families. Today, she describes work as a domestic helper or assistant as a “real profession”.

16 October 2009