October 7, 2022

Domestic Workers Convention May Be Landmark

Even countries that fail to ratify the pact will eventually be judged by its standards, they said, and the campaign to pass it had enlisted fresh allies, newly mindful of abuses from unpaid wages to rape.

Two days later, Saudi Arabia, a major destination for domestic workers, beheaded an Indonesian maid — at once highlighting the need for protections and the challenges of putting them in place.

The execution followed reports from maids who said their Saudi bosses had burned or beaten them, and the condemned woman, who killed her employer, said she had been abused. But when the Indonesian president protested, the Saudis stopped hiring Indonesians and pointedly turned to cheaper workers from countries less likely to complain.

The twin developments — accord in Geneva and maid wars in Riyadh — show opposing forces in a global campaign to protect domestic workers, an overlooked group of as many as 100 million people.

More broadly, that campaign tests the effort to raise work standards in a world of cheap and mobile labor. Many domestic workers are migrants, and the precedents could shape the treatment of other migrant groups. On Sept. 30, for example, Hong Kong’s High Court struck down a law that had excluded domestic workers from the residency rights offered to other foreign citizens, potentially allowing 100,000 maids to gain the right to stay.

The events show that “officials have not forgotten about migrant workers,” said Philip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis. “But they are also a reminder of the difficulties of extending effective protections to them.”

“The receiving countries can always say, ‘We will get workers somewhere else,’ ” he said.

While acknowledging such challenges, the treaty’s supporters say that it establishes vital new principles and that it will accelerate changes already under way. Before the pact was approved, Singapore, Jordan and New York State had passed new laws, and proposals are being considered in places as different as California and Kuwait. Even Saudi Arabia, a source of frequent abuse complaints, is considering changes that officials may feel more inclined to accept after voting for the pact.

“The treaty was a watershed event,” said Nisha Varia, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is now a global consensus that these women deserve the same rights as other workers. All the governments involved in this conversation will be under pressure to examine their labor laws.”

As a labor force composed mostly of women who work behind closed doors, domestic workers are hard to organize and vulnerable to attack. Many countries exclude them from labor laws, leaving no legal boundaries on their hours or pay.

In the United States, domestic workers are covered by minimum-wage laws, but they are excluded from federal statutes on occupational health, overtime and the right to organize.

As long ago as 1965, the International Labor Organization, a branch of the United Nations, saw an “urgent need” to protect domestic workers, whom it called “singularly subject to exploitation.” But interest in formal action waned, and women flooded the workplace, making nannies and maids a cornerstone of modern economies.

The export of domestic workers became big business in migration hubs like Indonesia and the Philippines, where more than half the migrants are women. Both countries celebrate the sums the women send home and simmer at the stories of mistreatment that percolate in the news media.

Saudi Arabia is a prime destination for both countries. In 2008, a study by Ms. Varia cited dozens of cases that amounted “to forced labor, trafficking, or slavery-like conditions.” While abuses occur everywhere, the report said, Saudi Arabia prosecuted few cases and sometimes allowed bosses to pursue retaliatory charges, like theft, against victims who complained.

A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington declined to comment. In the past, Saudi officials have accused critics of exaggerating isolated cases of abuse, and noted that legions of women still seek the jobs.

When the international labor group turned to domestic workers in 2010, Persian Gulf states, speaking as a bloc, called for nonbinding recommendations. In a reversal this year, they supported a binding treaty.

What is more, they strengthened it, with calls for stronger language on contract rights, overtime pay and access to courts during employer conflicts.

“It really made an impression,” said Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila. “When you think of abuses, you think of the gulf — yet here they are, standing up for domestic workers.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/world/domestic-workers-convention-may-be-landmark.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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