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Abused domestic workers – are we to blame?

Jan 15, 2013

We need better laws that set clear ground rules for our employment relationships with the domestic workers we hire. But the fundamental change of mind and behaviour rests with us, opines Amelita King-Dejardin, ILO domestic work specialist.

Amelita King-Dejardin


I’ve done hundreds of interviews with domestic workers and their employers, and alarm bells always ring whenever I hear the statement: “I treat her like a member of the family.” In my experience, this declaration, with its vague cultural notions, often means that the domestic worker relies on the benevolence of the employer and not on her rights as a worker.

Paradoxically, I also worry about the emphasis – by journalists, government officials, employers and researchers in various countries – on the horrors suffered by migrant domestic workers – beaten to death, burned with a hot iron, raped, locked in. Of course, these extreme forms of abuse do occur and should be prevented and punished, but there’s a danger that attention is diverted from the much more widespread, subtle, daily forms of abuse that domestic workers bear while working as ‘part of the family’ in their own countries.

It’s the exceedingly long working hours, with days that can begin as early as 4 in the morning; the short, interrupted sleep time and seven-day working weeks with no day-off; the need to be available at all times, whether it’s day or night – the so called “service on demand”. And it’s the lack of paid leave and the very low wages they receive.

I see these situations in places I visit in my role as the ILO’s expert on domestic work. In India, I met a woman who was expected by her employer to clean the toilets with her bare hands; another who had to bear constant verbal abuse from the family. Almost everyone I met talked about long back-breaking hours.
Many of us employ domestic workers. In Tanzania, I was told that almost everyone has a domestic worker. But often we are blind to the abuses of their rights or take them as “normal”, without appreciating that we ourselves would suffer physically and psychologically if we had to endure such conditions.

Fair remuneration that allows decent living, rest, leisure and reasonable limits on working hours, are universal human rights which most of us believe are just. Yet many who hire domestic workers often fail to acknowledge that they’re abusing their rights.

This directly concerns us all and begins “at home” – in our families, in our communities. We need better laws that set clear ground rules for our employment relationships with the domestic workers we hire. But the fundamental change of mind and behaviour rests with us.

An argument I often hear is that limiting daily working hours and paying better wages are not feasible or affordable. We need to look at how much of this is myth and how much fact.

In the Philippines, 81 per cent of households that employ domestic workers belong to the top 20 per cent of the income ladder. For low-income working women who need people to care for their young children or sick, the domestic worker should not have to bear the cost. Governments and communities should find ways to address this need.


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