What is domestic slavery?
Domestic workers are often particularly vulnerable to exploitation and domestic slavery because of the unique circumstances in which they work – inside a private household – and a general lack of legal protection.
Domestic workers perform a range of tasks in private homes including cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking care of children and elderly people, and running errands. Some domestic workers also live in their employers’ homes, and are often considered ‘on call’ to undertake work for their employer 24 hours a day. The 2022 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery indicated that domestic workers faced increasing pressures and abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For some domestic workers, the circumstances and conditions of their work amount to slavery. This can be the case when, for example:
- Employers stop domestic workers from leaving their home
- Pay is low, delayed or withheld
- Pay is given ‘in kind’, in the form of food and/or accommodation
- Workers are subjected to violence or threats
- Workers’ identity documents are withheld
- Employers limit domestic workers’ contact with family
I worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, without any rest. I worked like a slave and was treated like one.
They beat me regularly. The son of Madame tried to rape me several times. They always kept me locked inside the flat on the 13th floor. I couldn’t go out for three years.
Fasika, Ethiopian former domestic worker in Lebanon. Read her full story.
How does domestic slavery happen?
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 67 million people are employed as domestic workers across the world. Around four in five of all domestic workers are women and girls – and the ILO estimates that more girls under the age of 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labour. Of these, the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery demonstrate that 1.4 million of the 17.3 million people in forced labour in the private sector, are exploited in domestic work.
Some domestic workers migrate from other countries or regions, mainly from rural areas to the city. For many migrants, domestic work is one of the very few options available to enable them to provide for themselves and their families.
Domestic work is poorly regulated and typically undervalued. Often, domestic workers do not enjoy the same protections as other workers, including legal contracts, minimum pay, holidays, health care, social security and maternity benefits. In many countries, domestic workers are not considered ‘workers’ at all, but rather as informal ‘help’ – and are excluded from national labour regulations. In countries where domestic workers are covered by national labour laws, enforcement is often poor.
What we do
Anti-Slavery International was one of the first organisations to highlight the issue of domestic slavery, particularly for child domestic workers and migrant women.
In 2011 our Home Alone campaign played a big part in persuading the ILO to adopt the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which secures the rights of millions of domestic workers across the globe.
We have since worked with children in domestic work in Peru, and with women migrating for domestic work from Nepal and Bangladesh to the Middle East, as well as those migrating within India. We are currently working with children in Ghana and Tanzania.
In the UK, migrant domestic workers continue to suffer from widespread abuse and exploitation, including situations of trafficking and modern slavery. The current Overseas Domestic Worker visa increases their vulnerability to exploitation because it restricts migrant domestic workers to a non-renewable six-month visa; this effectively obstructs their ability to change employer, and leaves many migrant domestic workers facing abuse and exploitation with no escape route. It also obstructs access to justice and remedy when abuse occurs.
Ahead of the UK’s Universal Periodic Review in 2022, along with other organisations, we submitted evidence and concerns to the UN Human Rights Council about the situation facing migrant domestic workers in the UK.
We continue to urge the government to re-instate the pre-2012 ODW visa.