Domestic work is a sector which is particularly vulnerable to exploitation and domestic slavery because of the unique circumstances of working inside a private household combined with a lack of legal protection.
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 and are often considered ‘on call’ to undertake work for their employer 24 hours a 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.
For some domestic workers, the circumstances and conditions of their work amount to slavery. This happens when employers stop domestic workers from leaving the house, don’t pay wages, use violence or threats, withhold their identity documents, limit their contact with family and force them to work.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 67 million men and women work as domestic workers across the world, not including children.
Women and girls make up the overwhelming majority of domestic workers, around 80%. 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 or regions, mainly from rural areas to the city. For many, 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 undervalued. In many countries, domestic workers are not considered ‘workers’ but rather as informal ‘help’ and are excluded from national labour regulations.
Often they do not enjoy the same protections as other workers, such as legal contracts, minimum pay, holidays, health care, 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 servitude is the seemingly normal practice of live-in help that is used as cover for the exploitation and control of someone, usually from another country. It is a form of forced labour, but it also warrants its own category of slavery because of the unique contexts and challenges it presents.
Victims of domestic servitude may appear to be nannies or other domestic help, but the moment their employment arrangement transitions into a situation whereby they cannot leave on their own free will, it becomes a case of enslavement.
The circumstances of live-in help can create unique vulnerabilities for victims. Domestic workplaces are connected to off-duty living quarters and often not shared with other workers. Such an environment can isolate domestic workers and is conducive to exploitation because authorities cannot inspect homes as easily as they can formal workplaces.
Domestic servitude can also be a form of bonded labour. This form of slavery happens when migrant workers reach a destination country, and they incur a debt for their travel and/or a recruitment fee. Though working, if their employer or recruiter adds on additional costs that can never be repaid, like housing or food, then the arrangement has transitioned into a form of slavery. This problem is compounded when employers or recruiters neglect legal documentation or confiscate it because migrant domestic workers are often fearful of reporting the abuse for fear of legal consequences.
Domestic servitude can also be linked to forced marriage. Forced marriage is a marriage without the consent of one or both parties, and the U.S. government considers forced marriage to be a violation of human rights. In the case of minors, it’s also a case of child enslavement. Forced marriage is a mix of several forms of slavery, including forced labour, sexual enslavement and domestic servitude.
Domestic servitude throughout the world
Forced domestic servitude occurs throughout the world. Migrant workers are often vulnerable to domestic servitude, and some recruiting agencies trick workers into moving abroad and then confiscate their documents. This leaves workers stuck inside a home with no power to walk away. In many cases, these workers-turned-slaves are beaten by the families they serve and work from very early in the morning to late at night. Oftentimes, these individuals do not speak the language of the country they are in, are fearful of immigration officials or are unable to make contact outside of the home they serve. Beatrice Fernando’s story shows how this happens all throughout the world.
Forced domestic servitude is quite common in Haiti, whereby forced child servants are called restaveks. Restavek comes from the French “rester avec,” which means “one who stays with.” Haitian parents send their children to work and live with other families in exchange for better care and educational opportunities. These children are forced to work as enslaved domestic servants, and there are hundreds of stories of these children facing extreme beatings and inhumane living conditions, while never receiving the promised care or education.
In the United States, there have been several cases of various legal and undocumented workers traveling to the U.S. under the pretence of real employment and then forced into enslavement. One example is the story of Maria and Sandra Bearden of Laredo, Texas. In The Slave Next Door, we learn of Sandra, an upper-middle-class mother with a solid brick home and manicured lawn. She wanted a housemaid and nanny but didn’t want to pay a lot for the services. She travelled to Mexico where she promised a set of parents that she’d provide an education for their daughter in the United States. She smuggled their daughter, Maria, into the U.S. and immediately imprisoned her in Texas. Sandra, currently serving a life sentence for trafficking in persons, sprayed Maria with pepper spray, hit her with brooms and bottles and even sexually assaulted Maria with a gardening tool. Sandra even chained Maria to a pole in the backyard and fed her dog faeces. An attentive neighbour finally saw Maria in the backyard and reported the crime to authorities.
Forms of domestic servitude
Exploited by partner - Victims are forced to undertake household chores for their partner and often their partner's relatives. If married, the marriage may have been arranged or forced and the servitude often occurs alongside domestic abuse and sexual exploitation
Exploited by relatives - Victims live with and exploited for household chores and childcare by family members, usually extended family. Many victims are children
Exploiters not related to victims - Victims live with offenders who are often strangers. Victims are forced to undertake household chores and are mostly confined to the house.
Forced gang-related criminality - Victims are forced to undertake gang related criminal activities, most commonly relating to drug networks. Victims are often children who are forced by gangs to transport drugs and money.
Forced labour in illegal activities - Victims are forced to provide labour to offenders for illegal purposes e.g. victims being forced to cultivate cannabis in private residences
Forced acquisitive crime - Victims are forced by offenders to carry out acquisitive crimes such as shoplifting and pickpocketing. Offenders may provide food and accommodation to victims but rarely pay them
Forced begging - Victims are transported by offenders to locations to beg on the streets for money, which is then taken by offenders. Victims are often children vulnerable adults.
Trafficking for forced sham marriage - Traffickers will transport victims to a host country in which the individual has a legal immigration or citizenship status and sell them victims to an exploiter in a one-off transaction. Exploiters then marry victims to gain immigration advantages and often sexually abuse them.
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