Uphill struggle for domestic workers′ rights | Globalization | DW | 30.05.2012
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Uphill struggle for domestic workers' rights

There are an estimated 100 million domestic workers worldwide. But despite a convention passed by the International Labour Organization last year, many workers continue to face abuse.

At the Indian embassy in Oman, the Welfare Unit Officer is adamant - he says he is unauthorized to supply information to the media, and insists his press officer is nowhere to be found. He is unable to comment on how many labor complaints are filed each day.

But he says that when complaints are made "we react immediately."

About 700,000 Indians live and work in Oman. The unit officer says there is a 24-hour helpline should any of them want to complain of abuse at the hands of their employers. And if the dispute can't be resolved directly with the employer, it can be transferred to an Omani court.

"I was ready to die"

In 2003, there was no one to help Aisha T.N. - an Indian woman from Kerala, who was imprisoned in her employer's house. She didn't even know where she was.

Aisha had left her home in southern India to find a job that would pay enough to feed her children and her sick husband. In Oman, she made sixty euros a month ($75). It was enough to survive. But after eight months, at the age of forty, she went on a hunger strike.

Domestic worker Aisha T.N.

Aisha T.N. suffered abuse in Oman

Her employer - a rich Omani businessman - threatened to beat Aisha with a stick if she refused to get up. He stood over her in the drab lean-to, made of plywood and cardboard, where she lay. It was hidden from sight under a large, mahogany staircase. The businessman's wives and children looked on, impassively, Aisha says.

"But I just didn't care," she says, absent-mindedly tugging at a loose, red headscarf. "I was ready to die. I couldn't take it any more. I was just too exhausted."

Domestic servitude

Martin Oelz from the International Labour Organization (ILO) says conservative estimates put the number of domestic workers worldwide at 50 million, but that the actual figure may be around 100 million or more.

The majority of domestic workers are employed in Asia, followed closely by Latin America and the Caribbean. Globally, they make up about seven percent of the workforce and are an important source of remittances.

But some workers pay a high price for the money they send back to their families. Like Aisha, many of them are migrants and more than 80 percent are women - two groups that are seen as particularly vulnerable to abuse.

"In some countries, domestic work is still close to domestic servitude," the ILO's Martin Oelz says.

Even in countries that have developed labor laws, domestic workers are often excluded or covered by other laws that are less favourable.

"Domestic workers are often not considered as workers," says Oelz.

Landmark Convention

In June 2011, the ILO member states passed the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

The convention guarantees minimum standards. These include weekly days off, limits on working hours, social security and protection against abuse.

While the ILO member states are under no legal obligation to ratify the convention, many plan to do so. The parliaments of both the Philippines and Uruguay have ratified the convention this year and others are set to follow. Oelz says he is optimistic that up to 30 countries will ratify the convention in the next couple of years.

"The convention is a real landmark for the fight for domestic workers' rights," says Nisha Varia from Human Rights Watch.

Varia has been campaigning on the issue for ten years. When she started her campaign, she says trade unions and human rights organizations were slow to take up the fight.

And in part, say Varia, it had to do with the situations that domestic workers found themselves in.

Many domestic workers are migrants and face racism, or gender discrimination. Like Aisha, many do not speak the local language. Many live in their employer's house, making it difficult to meet other people, or organize themselves as a group.

Indian workers

Female domestic workers are particularly vulnerable

"Many of the people you would depend on to make the necessary legal and social changes are employers themselves," says Varia, adding that government officials, for example, often employ domestic workers themselves and see little reason for change.

Serious exploitation

But things have started to change.

"I've been totally amazed at the momentum we've seen in the last couple of years," Vaira says. The run-up to the ILO Convention was marked by social mobilisation, as trade unions and governments became increasingly aware of the issue and workers began forming their own unions, she says.

Progress, though, has been varied.

"There is still quite serious exploitation at a really disturbing scale," says Human Rights Watch's Nisha Varia.

The ILO's Martin Oelz agrees. He says progress in the Arab world, with the exception of Jordan, has been particularly slow.

"But the states have committed themselves to the standards," Oelz says.

Domestic worker Aisha T.N.

Aisha is relieved to be home

Oelz stresses both bilateral and regional agreements are important to prevent the ongoing trafficking of workers, which makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Mohammed Al-Busaidi, a member of Oman's Shura Council, or parliament, says it is possible that domestic workers are entering countries, using unregulated agents, and bypassing strict laws on hiring domestic workers that India and Oman agreed to in 2011.

"[But] we don't know who these agents are, or whether they are unregulated or not”, Al-Busaidi says.

Unregulated agents

Aisha had contacted a local agent when she was looking for work in the Gulf. He organized her visa and her flights, making her totally dependent on him.

"That was a mistake," says Aisha.

In his desperation, Aisha's husband went to the agent's house and threatened to kill him if he failed to secure Aisha's return. Only then did Aisha's Omani employer let her go.

Standing on the veranda of her son's small house, Aisha recalls how she cried when she got back to India, she was so relieved to be home.

But a year later, she packed her bags again and headed to Saudi Arabia. Her husband was still sick and someone had to support the family. This time though, she was treated fairly, she says. Aisha returned two years later to nurse her dying husband, and now says she is back for good.

Author: Naomi Conrad
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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