The Plight of Domestic Workers

Although an estimated 53 million people are employed as domestic workers—over 80% of whom are women and young girls—trafficking of persons for the purpose of labor, specifically domestic work, rarely grabs the attention of the general public and has for too long been ignored equally by media, students, activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and law enforcement agencies.

There are several reasons the often horrific situation of domestic workers has remained largely unnoticed and difficult to address.

  • Domestic workers live and work in private homes, behind closed doors, and any great harm done to them remains invisible.
  • Domestic workers are isolated. They are never off duty and therefore often have no social life. Feeling the pressure from home and being aware of their lack of rights, they quietly endure conditions far from ideal.
  • Domestic work has historically been used as a form of social subordination, of women in general and minority women in particular. Domestic workers are kept as non-actors, as people with no political power who could do little to incur change.
  • Domestic work has been and still is considered women’s work and as a result falls in the informal sector and is viewed as an industry of lesser respect. Domestic workers are regarded as non-persons who could easily become both sex and labor slaves.

In addition, employer-controlled visas (specifically in the United States) are an added layer of vulnerability for domestic workers. Both the receiving family and the domestic worker endure irreversible damage when provided false information about each other by the middle men—the recruiting agencies in both receiving and origin countries.

In order to comprehensively address the situation of domestic workers, instead of playing the blame game, both origin and destination countries must examine existing systems that repress domestic workers and implement changes that ensure domestic workers enjoy the same rights as other laborers. While existing bilateral agreements between origin and destination countries seem to address the issue, they ultimately do not work because the countries of origin are in a weak bargaining position and the receiving countries, if pressed, would simply move to another country of origin with less stricter laws.

Regarding domestic workers as victims implies that they are powerless, dependant, and unable to make it without support. We should instead see them as survivors—survivors who could adapt to the most inhospitable and dangerous environments, who could manage to grasp the value of life even when it is uncertain and painful, or maybe because it is uncertain and painful, and who are content to be alive. Worker-led mobilization efforts and survivor-led empowerment should therefore be integral to any state attempt to address the problem.

Lastly, at an individual level, the general population needs to realize that domestic work is work, often hazardous and undervalued, and the people who make sure the work is done deserve safe conditions, proper treatment, and most of all recognition. After all, the truth is that it is not the job itself that should be viewed as degrading; what reduces the status of domestic workers is the loss of independence and responsibility that has traditionally accompanied the work. To properly address the problem, therefore, the larger population needs to realize the importance and value of domestic workers who do “the work that makes all other work possible”.

Learn more at Krasi Shapkarova’s University of Denver Korbel Report article: The Plight of Domestic Workers as a Concern for Anti-Human Trafficking Activists.

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