Friday, November 6, 2009

Protecting Migrant Domestic Workers

I've blogged before on the situation of migrant domestic workers -- largely composed of females and ethnic minorities, without permanent legal status and working in the "private" sphere, this group of laborers is uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families has turned its focus to this group, and rleased last week a draft report summarizing the proceedings of October's Day of General Discussion on Migrant Domestic Workers.
Panelists began by discussing the obstacles to protection of migrant domestic workers. The central problem has long been familiar to feminist legal activists: "domestic work is broadly not perceived as real work, and is thus almost universally excluded from labour legislation and regulations and not subject to labour inspections." The curtain of the domestic sphere is drawn tightly and resists lifting, particularly when the subjects are migrants. Many domestic workers, the report notes, have irregular migration status, and are thus particularly vulnerable to sexual and other abuse. Employers withhold salaries, confiscate migration documents, and fail to contribute to social security benefits, without threat of investigation let alone prosecution. In addition to the obvious candidates for treaty protection (CEDAW and CMW), the report suggests that International Labor Organization conventions, including those prohibiting forced labor and employment discrimination as well as those concerning migration for employment (none of which has been ratified by the U.S.).
The first working group focused on the recruitment of migrant domestic workers, suggesting that protective bilateral agreements between migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries as well as standard binding recruitment contracts might help to prevent the exorbitant recruitment fees and the lack of written contracts that lead to exploitation of migrant domestic workers. Raising awareness on the part of migrant domestic workers about their rights is also an important protective measure. The second working group highlighted the link between stringent immigration laws and exploitation of domestic migrant workers -- because these laborers often have no legal means of entry into countries of employment, they fail to report mistreatment to the police for fear of deportation. For others, particularly in the Middle East, work permits are attached to particular employers, increasing the opportunity for exploitation and abuse. If the migration status of domestic workers could be regularized, even through temporary work visas, this would open up the possibility of consular involvement, labor inspections, and control of health and labor standards.
The report specifically suggests use of "a gender perspective [to] facilitate understanding the specificities and gender-based discrimination that migrant domestic workers face throughout the migration process." It suggests the creation of a new ILO instrument specifically focused on migrant domestic workers, and notes the important role of sending and receiving states in piercing the private sphere to protect these vulnerable women.

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