Saturday, April 4, 2009

Regulating the Domestic Sphere: The Role of States

Given the potential for abuse and widespread lack of regulation, working conditions in the domestic sphere are particularly perilous. Add temporary or nonexistent immigration status to the mix, and the situation becomes even more dire. Though the examples in this post focus on the situation of migrant domestic laborers, largely Asian and female, who work in the Middle East, such abuse has been amply documented in the United States and presumably occurs with regularity around the globe. Stories abound of exploitation ranging from unpaid wages to rape; while awareness of these issues has been raised in recent years, legal frameworks for protection in states that receive such workers are often non-existent or underenforced. Moreover, labor-sending states should be playing a larger role in establishing and enforcing the rights of migrant domestic laborers.
Receiving states are an obvious starting point for protection frameworks, but domestic workers are often excluded from labor law protections. In Lebanon, for example, which hosts over 200,000 migrant domestic workers, mainly Filipina and Sri Lankan women, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Labor Organization have only just succeeded in creating a common set of standards, in the form of a unified contract, to protect migrant domestic workers. The contract includes basic rights to adequate food and clothing and a private place to sleep, limits workdays to 10 hours per day and 6 days per week, and requires employers to provide monthly paychecks as well as health insurance for domestic employees. Yet the employer still has the right to hold workers' passports, may terminate employment at will, and most importantly faces no enforcement mechanism for violations of the contract. While uniform standards are preferable to the void that existed previously, rights of domestic migrant workers must be given enforceable legal status before they will be taken seriously by employers.
Sending states can also play a role in protecting their workers abroad. Given the financial benefits migrant worker-exporting states reap in the form of remittances -- for example, in 2007, Bangladeshis working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Filipinos working in the Arab States each sent home over $2 billion while Sri Lankans remitted $3 billion -- they should recognize the importance of protecting the physical and psychological well-being of these workers. I've blogged here about the Philippines' creative program to protect migrant workers abroad, which offers support to laborers prior to departure, during their work stint, and for repatriation. At the other end of the spectrum, some nations ban their citizens from working in countries notorious for abusing their workers or ban women from participating in migrant labor flows -- a dangerous step likely to push migrant workers underground and eliminate access to protective services. Given the failure of the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers to attract signatories from migrant-receiving states, sending states might negotiate bilateral treaties protecting the rights of migrant workers, ensuring that those working in the domestic sphere are covered by labor laws. Short of a such a serious commitment, states could ameliorate the situation of their workers abroad through relatively simple programs such as pre-departure rights presentations to migrants and effective outreach and support programs within embassies and consulates.

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