DOMESTIC WORK IS WORK: Toward Increased Freedom for Household Servants

Millions of domestic workers around the world are particularly vulnerable to forced labor. Overwhelmingly female and typically from developing countries in Africa assume great risks when migrating abroad. As a recent ILO report noted, the origins of domestic work trace back to a “master- servant” relationship rooted in slavery and other forms of servitude. Despite such linkages, many countries, do not offer protection to domestic workers under prevailing labor laws, perceiving their work as something other than regular employment. This lack of legal protections- combined with the social isolation and a lack of personal autonomy inherent in live- in domestic service- provides an enabling enviroment for slavery.

Domestic workers are vulnerable to all forms of abuse, though forced labor is one of the most severe. Such abuses often include confinement, confiscation of travel documents, withholding of salary, physical and sexual abuse, and threats of harm, including the threat of arrest and summary deportation as an undocumented migrant. For domestic workers from another country, freedom often is proscribed by law; some countries’ “sponsorship” laws grant the employer of a foreign domestic worker the power to decide when she can leave the workplace and when she can leave the country, even if the servant has escaped and reported abuse.

The ILO notes that in many countries, domestic work is largely performed by children. When children are used as servants instead of being educated, the situation should be remedied. When the child is abused, the employer should face criminal, not administrative, sanctions.

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