The problems of domestic workers

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The problems of domestic workers


An African-American woman cleaning. by CDC/ Dawn Arlotta from Public Health Image Library

We must stop the abuse and violence in this industry writes Kevin Redmayne.

In Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, the Domestic Workers Union is protesting outside the Supreme Court. Sarath Abrew, an important judge, was accused of attacking a hotel cleaner sexually, breaking her skull and leaving her when he thought she was dead. The protesters want justice, and new laws to protect their rights. The cleaning industry exploits people – and the violence has to stop.

53 million people now do domestic work around the world. This is 1.7% of the people who work. 83% of cleaners are female. And 17.2 million children are also cleaners.

Domestic workers earn less than 50% of the average salary in the country, says the ILO (International Labour Organization). So workers in the developing world could earn less than $8,000 a year or no salary at all. Job titles can be: housemaid, servant, cook, gardener, governess, babysitter or care-giver. We don’t often say ‘slave’ but in many cases, they are slaves.

The ILO recently said that domestic work can be ‘invisible’. They have low pay and long hours. But also, many domestic workers have no legal protection and often have unlawful contracts, unfair terms and unethical job descriptions. They are almost victims of crime.

Half of all domestic workers have no limit on the number of hours they work in a day; 45% have no legal rest periods or paid annual leave. Most have zero-hour contracts, and earn less than the legal limit. Many get payment as food and a play to stay. Also, there are many other problems with late pay, deductions, unpaid overtime and no pay for times they are not working.

Also, domestic work can lead to slavery. It is easy for domestic workers to fall into sex trafficking, pornographic industries, drug-selling, slavery and imprisonment. Recently, there was a scandal of human rights abuses of migrant workers in Qatar. This shows that forced labour is a real possibility. The big dangers are rape and physical violence. There are other dangers eg. food-rationing, blackmail, surveillance, threat and intimidation. This is low-level abuse and few people see it. Domestic workers cannot escape the abuse.

In 2011 more people started demanding new regulations for domestic workers. The ILO created the Convention on Domestic Workers 189 & Recommendation 201. They wanted all domestic workers to have a 24-hour rest period once a week, a minimum wage, a place to live and, finally, the right to get a legal contract. This was important in trying to get rights and safety. But only 16 countries accepted it.

We need to think about this: the tourist industry is growing. It’s good to stay in hotels on holiday, but after we fly home, the maid continues cleaning day and night. Many domestic workers are vulnerable. Many are migrants, escaping war or poverty; most have little or no education; and all of them face discrimination. If there are not enough laws and bad employers, this makes it worse.

But domestic workers don’t only work in hotels; they work in care homes, hospitals, psychiatric units and orphanages. They look after their own families and us and the economy. The recent case in Sri Lanka shows they also become victims of crime. We need to look at the problems of domestic workers and change them. The ILO convention is a good start. Employment law across different countries will give domestic workers a job and a life.

Kevin Redmayne is a journalist in Britain.

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