From domestic work to modern day slavery

In her latest report to the Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Gulnara Shahinian highlights modern day domestic servitude as a global human rights concern.

View of Room XX, Palais des Nations © UN Photo/JeanMarc Ferre“Equality and human dignity are the basic values underlying all human rights”, the UN expert said at the 15th session of the Council currently held in Geneva. “There is perhaps, no greater denial of these universally shared values than treating human beings as mere chattels that can be owned, controlled, exploited and enslaved. Yet, human beings across the world still suffer this fate.”

In her report, the Special Rapporteur highlights various ways in which domestic servitude manifests itself, ranging from slavery as understood by the 1926 Slavery Convention to slavery-like practices, such as bonded domestic labour and child domestic labour. She finds that gender discrimination and domestic servitude are inextricably linked, the victims being almost always women and girls.   

At the Council, Shahinian said that too little is done to protect domestic workers -especially those who live with their employers. “Many countries specifically exclude domestic workers from the protection of their labour laws or fail to enforce existing laws”, she said. “In some countries, it is also still tolerated that employers restrict their domestic workers’ freedom of movement and communication – for instance by locking them in the house or taking their identity documents away. This results in many domestic workers being and remaining invisible.”

Domestic workers’ physical and social isolation, which is at times deliberately fostered by unscrupulous employers, interferes with their human rights thereby turning domestic work into domestic servitude.  Workers in domestic servitude do not have the right to freely organize and associate. In such a social construct, their working conditions are guarded from public scrutiny and human rights abuses are more difficult to denounce.

Domestic workers living in domestic servitude frequently experience physical, psychological and sometimes sexual abuse within their employer’s household. Working conditions are also exploitative as those who receive a salary are paid below the minimum wage, frequently work without contracts, and are often required to work 16 to 18 hour days without being allocated sufficient hours of rest. Such practices, the UN expert stressed, are in contradiction of several international conventions regulating the working conditions of domestic workers, including child and migrant workers.

“Although the victims are largely invisible, domestic servitude constitutes a global human rights concern. Every region in the world is affected”, the UN expert said. “Millions of women and girls, pursuing the opportunities that domestic work provides, while providing a valuable contribution to society, are at risk because their rights, equal human dignity and autonomy are not adequately protected.”

“The criminalization of all forms of slavery and servitude, in line with States’ international obligations, is one aspect of an effective response”, Shahinian says. “At the same time, the issue is embedded in the wider challenge to ensure that domestic workers are finally provided with equal protection of their labour rights. Combating domestic servitude and protecting domestic workers’ rights are two sides of the same coin.”

“Domestic workers provide an indispensable contribution to society. If fair labour practices are ensured, the sector can offer domestic workers opportunities to earn a salary for their families.”

1 October 2010