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Domestic work and slavery

Domestic work is one of the oldest occupations in the world and is an important job for millions of people, representing up to 10 per cent of total employment in some countries.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 52.6 million men and women work as domestic workers across the world, as well as 7.4 million children below the age of 15. Domestic work accounts for 7.5 per cent of women’s wage employment world-wide, and a far greater share in some regions.

Domestic workers perform a range of tasks in private homes including cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking care of children and the elderly, and running errands. Some domestic workers also live in their employers’ homes.

Who are domestic workers?

Women and girls make up the overwhelming majority of domestic workers worldwide, although in some countries a significant number of men and boys are domestic workers.  ILO estimates that more girls under the age of 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labour.

Some domestic workers are migrant workers from other countries. Others have moved within their own country, often from rural areas to the city, to take up employment. Some work in their home community. For many, domestic work is one of the very few options available to enable them to provide for themselves and their families.

What problems do domestic workers face?

Domestic work is poorly regulated, undervalued, and many domestic workers are subject to serious abuses, including slavery.

Domestic workers often work excessively long hours, without breaks, days off or holidays. Those who live with their employers are often considered ‘on call’ to undertake work for their employer 24 hours per day. The pay is often very low, with wage payments frequently delayed. Some domestic workers may not be paid at all or only receive ‘payment in kind’ such as food or accommodation.

Many domestic workers face verbal abuse such as insults and threats, alongside physical and even sexual abuse. Some domestic workers experience a lack of food and poor living conditions such as having to sleep on the floor in a utility room.

Domestic workers lack legal protection. In many countries, domestic workers are not considered ‘workers’ but rather as informal ‘help’ and are excluded from national labour legislation. Often they do not enjoy the same protections as other members of the workforce, such as minimum pay, social security, and maternity benefits. In countries where domestic workers are covered by national labour laws, enforcement is poor and these protections have not been translated into practice. Domestic workers are exploited behind closed doors in private households and fall outside the normal regulatory and inspection framework applicable to other places of work. It is also difficult for them to organise and join trade unions because of their place of work.

In 2011 International Labour Organization adopted the Domestic Work Convention which gives domestic workers across the world legal protections and provides an international framework for national laws to address the particular vulnerability of domestic workers everywhere to slavery and exploitation. It came into force on 5 September 2013.

Unfortunately only few countries ratified the convention so far and the legal protections for domestic workers in most of world’s countries remain weak.

When is domestic work slavery?

Domestic work is a sector which is particularly vulnerable to forms of slavery such as forced labour, trafficking, and bonded labour, due to the unique and specific circumstances of their work inside a private household combined with a lack of legal protection.

For some domestic workers, the circumstances and conditions of their work amount to forced labour: where employers have forbidden them from leaving the home; withheld or not paid wages; used violence or threats of violence; withheld their passports or identity document; limited their ability to have contact with family; or deceived them about their rights in order to compel them to work.


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Support our HOME ALONE: End Domestic Slavery campaign


our child domestic work programme

Check what we do on the issue of child domestic workers.


Resources

Migrant domestic workers

I did not even get enough food. Sometimes I only had bread and tea. I worked all day, with only bread and tea. One day, after complaining about my conditions and salary I was beaten right away. She even used shoes to beat me. My right hand was broken and there were bruises all over my body.”
Amrita (name changed), Nepali domestic worker in Lebanon
©Pete Pattisson / www.petepattisson.com


Cyprian, former child domestic worker, Tanzania

Cyprian, 17, from Tanzania, has been a domestic worker since he was eleven. He could not go to school as his employer didn't give him time off. He got support through Anti-Slavery partners Kuvulini and now he became a leader in his community helping other child domestic workers to make changes in their lives.
©Anti-Slavery International


Divia, trafficked for domestic work in the UK

"I came to England with a Saudi family. The woman told me I would sleep on the floor in the utility room. It was stone-cold in winter. I became sick. I think it was from hunger as they wouldn't let me eat their food. I could cook it - but not eat it. After six months of shouting and beating I crept out in the middle of the night. I went to the police, but my English was poor. They told me to go away."
Divia, 28, from India.
©Karen Robinson/ Panos Pictures