Standing up for the rights of migrant domestic workers

Over the past few decades the ranks of domestic workers, those people employed in private homes, has increasingly been filled by migrants, overwhelmingly women and girls. The rights of these millions of migrant domestic workers are very often violated, starting in their countries of origin, continuing through the transit points to the host country and including the employers who contract their labour.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation when working as domestic migrant workers © OHCHR/Carol MansourRecognizing the rampant exploitation of these people, the UN committee responsible for protecting migrant workers has pointed out there are very few explicit references to domestic work in most existing national and international law. At its most recent session in Geneva, the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families approved a General Comment which describes in great detail the plight of many migrant domestic workers and recommends a range of social and legal actions to shore up their personal and working lives.

In an address to the Committee, senior human rights official, Craig Mokhiber said migrant domestic workers had been “long neglected as a human rights issue”. 

He described “their vulnerability due to their often undocumented status and irregular nature of their work, their treatment as criminals under many jurisdictions, and the high risk of sexual violence to which they are sometimes exposed.”

In its General Comment, the Committee says the problems for migrant domestic workers start right at the recruitment stage when they frequently fall prey to corrupt and illegal employment agents. Women and girls are particularly at risk of physical and sexual abuse by these intermediaries while transiting through foreign countries.

On arrival in their host countries the problems for migrant domestic workers often multiply: many of them are saddled with huge debts; they find themselves without legal papers and with no jobs; employers frequently withhold their passports; many are prevented from moving freely outside the house in which they work; their working hours are often ill-defined and very long, with very few days off; salaries are sometimes non-existent and often are low and paid erratically; their living conditions are unsanitary and degrading; they have no social security protection; and many suffer psychological, physical and sexual abuse and harassment.

The Committee found labour laws at national level “often ignore or explicitly exclude domestic work and workers in ways that contribute to exploitative labour practices and limit avenues for legal redress in cases of violations.”

To overcome these widespread and very serious abuses of millions of domestic migrant workers, the Committee, in its General Comment, has made a number of recommendations: States should agree on standard employment contracts; there needs to be regular reporting on domestic workers flows; recruiters should be regulated; conditions for domestic workers should be subject to national regulation; social security and health services should be made available; it is essential they have the right to organize collective bargaining; and States should ensure migrant domestic workers have access to justice and remedies in case of violations.

The General Comment agreed by the Committee will be circulated to all Member States for use as a guide to the appropriate measures required to guarantee the rights of domestic workers.

At its last session, the Committee also celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant workers and Members of their Families, adopted by the General Assembly in December, 1990.

Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-Wha Kang speaking at an event in Geneva to mark the anniversary said the Convention is one of the core UN human rights treaties providing standards for domestic policies and law that recognize the specific vulnerabilities of migrants.

Noting that migration is a priority area for the UN Human Rights Office, Kang called on all Member States who have not yet done so to ratify the Convention. “Migration touches nearly all countries of the world,” she said, “whether as sending, receiving or transit countries, or increasingly as all three.”

“Migration continues to grow in number because it is an essential driving force for the present and future development of many countries. Historical experience shows that migration policy – and the contribution of migration to development – will only be viable and sustainable when firmly founded upon human rights.” Kang said.

28 December 2010