Forced Labor

06.24.1410:30 AM ET

Int’l Treaty Will Help End Forced Labor

As of this month, a new treaty will prevent, protect and provide restitution for trafficked domestic workers. Now member countries just need to ratify and abide by it.

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine working seven days a week, sometimes until 3AM, cooking, cleaning and taking care of children. It’s even harder to imagine doing it for far below the minimum wage, with no overtime pay and without the ability to see a doctor or go out to dinner with friends. But it’s downright impossible to imagine doing it without access to your ID or passport, living in fear of deportation if you ran, but certain exploitation if you stayed. If your employer was a diplomat or other official, would people even believe you?  

This is the situation that Lucy Mwaka described to the community-based organization Casa de Maryland when she escaped in April after four years of alleged exploitation in the home of a Kenyan diplomat in the United States. After various attempts to reach her employer through her attorney, Lucy has led two delegations to the Embassy of Kenya and is now asking for public support through a petition. Lucy’s story follows patterns of exploitation by diplomats and international officials that are familiar to many domestic workers. Last winter, Indian consular officer Devyani Khobragade was indicted for visa fraud in New York City. The benign-sounding charge was somewhat misleading: the indictment charged severe exploitation of Sangeeta Richard, the domestic worker she employed, including intimidation and brutally long hours with extremely low pay.  

Stories such as Lucy’s and Sangeeta’s are not new to most member organizations of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), some of whom have been working directly on the issue of trafficking and exploitation of domestic workers for years. In 2011, NDWA took the fight to the global level and helped found the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), which successfully campaigned for the passage and ratification of Convention 189. This convention became the first to specifically address global labor standards for domestic workers, who are widely excluded from national and international labor laws.  

This month in Geneva, through the leadership of the AFL-CIO, national and international organizations like NDWA, IDWF, the National Guestworker Alliance and Human Rights Watch helped negotiate a new International Labor Organization (ILO) Protocol on forced labor that creates rules for governments and employers on prevention, protection and restitution for victims. On June 11, the ILO adopted this new international treaty, and now it needs to be ratified by member countries.  

Domestic workers subjected to forced labor and human trafficking face widespread abuse at the hands of employers and recruitment agencies, including lack of pay, long hours, false contracts, emotional/physical/sexual abuse, isolation from family and having their passports and visas taken. Women make up more than 83% of the more than 50 million domestic workers worldwide.

Many are migrants who are coerced through immigration-based threats, even if they’re on legal work visas like Lucy and Sangeeta. If they leave, they are at once homeless, jobless and “illegal.” Compounding the problem, there is a pervasive societal discounting of domestic work as not “real work,” which means they are sometimes excluded from labor laws and politically invisible.  

This global disregard for the value of domestic work, has been brought to light recently by the success of the IDWF. While Thailand was the only country to vote against the new Protocol, several countries in the Gulf region – like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman –  abstained rather than supporting it. Not coindentally, these Gulf countries are the recipients of huge numbers of migrant domestic workers from places like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines – and have had numerous cases of abuse, rape and labor exploitation reported in international media.  

On June 6, as they gathered for the ILO discussions, the IDWF delivered a letter to the Qatari government noting the serious human rights abuses of migrant domestic workers in Qatar documented by the UN, and urged them to take steps including ratifying the relevant Conventions and abolishing the kafala sponsorship system.  

The new ILO Protocol paves the way for governments to re-examine what they can do to address and prevent forced labor in every sector, but it’s only a first step. The Protocol itself is broad and includes provisions for education and outreach, and strengthening the coverage of labor laws and the role of labor inspectors to better reach those at risk of forced labor. The Protocol also prioritizes victim identification and rehabilitation, and access to remedies like compensation, so that victims can begin healing as soon as they escape or are rescued.  

The ILO also voted to attach a Recommendation, which has more direct suggestions, such as the elimination of recruitment fees (which can lead to debt bondage), orientation for migrants about their rights, and protection from retaliation for immigrant victims who organize and exercise their rights. For worker organizations, the Recommendation can serve as a menu of policy ideas they can push for with their governments, since many countries already offer the most basic protections covered in the Protocol.

In the US, the new Protocol and Recommendation will be used to push for partnerships among worker groups, the Department of State, and Department of Labor to better monitor the working conditions of domestic workers. It will also help groups demand greater accountability for diplomats and international officials who violate workers’ rights, and improved services for survivors, including more efficient access to immigration relief, work authorization and social services.  

Just passing the new ILO Protocols and Recommendations will not be the final step to ensuring domestic worker rights. But these treaties do shine an international spotlight on the crisis of forced labor and human trafficking and should inspire domestic workers to organize and fight for recognition and respect. Widespread ratification, implementation and worker-led enforcement organizing and outreach has the potential to transform individuals and societies, and newly recruited leaders like Lucy and Sangeeta will likely be holding the banner.  

Tiffany Williams is the director of Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies, and the coordinator of the Beyond Survival campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.