Bad Housekeeping: The Plight of Domestic Workers

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Part of any holiday is being pampered. But our luxury vacation comes at a price. After we fly home, the hotel maid is left continuing her rounds day and night. Just one of 53 million domestic workers trapped in an exploitative industry.

The reality of being a domestic is much more disturbing than first appears. Of course we all know, it’s poor pay, bad hours, and the hotel industry undervalues its staff; but aside from this, many domestic workers have no legal status or protection. Right now, there are 53 million people working as domestics, 1.7% of the world’s employment. 43 million (83%) are women, which means 1 in 13 of every wage earning female is in the job. The recent acquittal of Dominic Levi Strauss, on not only one charge of rape, but multiple, show how excluded and underrepresented domestic workers really are.

Asia & the Pacific — 21.4 million; Latin America — 19.5 million; the Developed Economies and EU states — 3.5 million, and the Middle East 2.1 million. These are numbers. Jobs titles include but are not limited to, housemaid or servant, cook, gardener, gatekeeper, governess, or babysitter. We rarely, use the word ‘slave’ but in many cases this is synomynous

In the words of the International Labour Organisation the problem with domestic work is its ‘Invisibility.’ Employees, are often given illegal contracts, which offers no safeguards to exploitation. Employers have no obligation or responsibility in setting out fair terms and conditions, or of adhering to their commitments.

One of the common forms of exploitation is working-hours. 50% of all domestic workers have no limitation for the number of hours they can be called to work in a day or night. 45% have no entitlement to rest periods or paid annual leave. Many workers exist on zero-hours contracts, which means they are on-call 24 hours, and can be working for over a 12 hours period. They also have no job security, and can be out of work for vast stretches of time.

Domestics will also be earning wages that are so low they often breach employment laws. The illegal practise of payment in kind, where employees will offer bed and board for services is still very common.

In countries such as Britain, there is a minimum wage, (but this is only applicable if the contract is legally binding), for those countries who don’t have a minimum wage, salaries can be undercut to the point employees can be struggling to survive. In fact estimates suggest Domestic Workers earn 50% less than the average salary of any particular nation. This means in a place like the United Kingdom, full time work will be earning as little as £13 000. However, if it was a hotel in Qatar a salary could be as low as £6000 per annum. In countries like the Philippines or Peru the wages are non-existent. It is not unheard of for monthly wage packets to be delayed, or skipped. Overtime requirement without compensation, the non renumeration of standby periods, wage deductions, or changing the terms and conditions of salary are all common.

Of course the dark side of domestic work is that it can lead to slavery. Domestics can can fall prey to sex traffickers, pornographic industries, drug running, servitude, and imprisonment.

Slavery or what the ILO calls ‘forced labour’ is a very real possibility in some countries due to the nature of the business. We need only think of the recent scandals involving the human rights abuses of migratory workers, who are trafficked into countries for a cheap labour, or the outsourcing of manufacturing to developing countries at the whim of big businesses to know this is true. Beyond the big dangers of rape, violence and abuse, is the more common practise of food-rationing, blackmail, surveillance, false-imprisonment, threat, coercion, intimidation, and assault. This type of low-level violence goes unnoticed all over the world.

As we delve deeper into the industry we uncover more horrifying statistics. 17.2 million children are currently employed in domestic work.

Children, cannot give informed consent and are even more vulnerable to exploitation. We need only look at the Kamalari girls in Nepal, to see how domesticity can quickly degenerate into slavery and human rights abuses can occur.

Thankfully the world is waking up to the plight of domestic workers, and pushing for industry regulation. In 2011 the International Labour Organisation created the Convention on Domestic Workers 189, and Recommendation 201. This was an important step in securing the rights of domestic workers worldwide, and a transnational attempt to safeguard rights. The main clauses put forward were the entitlement to a 24 hour rest period once a week, a minimum wage, the right to choose a place of residence, and finally the right to receive a legally binding contract, with fair terms and conditions. Its a start, but more needs to be done.

Presented 16 June 2011 to the United Nations, the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers 189, and Recommendation 201, was only ratified by only 16 countries.

Going back to the our all inclusive hotel, and plush executive suite, we may have cause to reflect: We often don’t think about domestic workers, because it would spoil the illusion of the holiday. But also, perhaps because we see the domestic worker, as a victim of their own ignorance. It is their fault, they are trapped in an exploitative occupation, because they didn’t attempt to get an education. Or they purposefully chose the life of an immigrant. It is true to say many employed in the sector are migrants - from some of the most impoverished regions of the world. Many will have not had the opportunity to go to school, and receive an education. Is that their fault?

Whatever the cause domestic workers are usually poor, marginalised, dispossessed or displaced already — they fall into the industry as a means of survival. Rather than seeing them, as a victim of their own failing we’d do better to acknowledge our conceit.

Domestic workers don’t just fluff our pillows on holiday, they also work in care homes looking after our elderly relatives, inpatient units for those with special needs, and work in orphanages. And for that matter they aren’t just domestic workers, they are mothers, daughters, sisters and girls, who more often than not, provide for themselves but also their wider families. Out of sight out of mind is the prerequisite for an enjoyable holiday, but it also trickles down to blanket denial of the harsh reality of the service-sector in general. We need to shine a light on this invisible industry, and make sure all domestic workers have written contracts, fair terms and conditions, rights entitlements and employer and respect. While ILO convention 189 and 201 recommendation maybe overreaching it is better than absconding from responsibility altogether. One of the surest ways of safeguarding of the rights is through transnational employment law. This is a way to stop the clock, and give domestic workers a livelihood, but also a chance to have a life outside of it.

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