Maids at work

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  • Published 20140805
  • ISBN: 9781922182425
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IT IS SUMMER 2008 in downtown Beirut and in the tiny bathroom of an upmarket rooftop restaurant a young Ethiopian woman sits reading in a dimly lit, cramped corner. You only know she’s there after you close the door. There is barely room for more than one person in the bathroom at a time, there is no air conditioning so it is intolerably hot and airless. She will sit there till the early morning. Her job is to change toilet rolls. I ask what she is reading and she says it is the Bible. In response to further questions she tells us that she has another job during the day, which means she only gets a few hours sleep each night. I give her a large tip and later learn that my friend has done the same.

This aspect of life in Lebanon, the treatment of migrant workers, really affects me but it sometimes seems I’m the only one who notices. It’s also possible that the woman is not strictly legal in Lebanon because Ethiopia has placed a ban on workers going there. It’s also possible she receives no wages at all and the restaurant owner simply allows her to work in this way for the tips.

I’m also a migrant worker in Lebanon, on contract for a year to a Lebanese education company to write and edit English language school textbooks for public schools in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which the company manages in a public-private partnership. I’ve only just arrived, having flown from Sydney to Beirut in May 2008, where out of a population of four million there are an estimated two hundred thousand migrant domestic workers – most from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Soon after my arrival, Jill joins our team for a month to help write teaching materials. She is British, of West Indian descent, and has been teaching for six years in various international schools in the UAE – she has a wicked sense of humour and we often get together on weekends. One Saturday we go to Souk el Tayeb (souk is market, tayeb is food) in downtown Beirut. This weekly Saturday organic-growers market is held in a car park in Saifi, an area that has only recently been restored. Its colonial style buildings have been painted in gelato colours, the cobbled stone streets and squares have been landscaped with shade-giving trees, and on the ground floor of the buildings there is an eclectic mix of speciality shops and galleries.

Souk el Tayeb is a peace-making initiative that brings together stall holders from all over the Lebanon to sell their produce: breads, pastries, flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables, and all kinds of home cooking including jams and pickles, bottled cheeses, spinach triangles with a strong lemony flavour, stuffed vine leaves, local wines. One stallholder, a man in a wheelchair, makes freshly squeezed lemonade drinks and another, a woman called Youmna Jazzar Medlej, sells children’s books, which are mostly published in French and English. They’re illustrated and designed by her daughter, Joumana, and have Lebanese themes such as, for example, The Days of Mouneh, which is about the Lebanese tradition of preserving and storing summer produce so it can be eaten in winter.  My Arabic teacher tells me, ‘This is the kind of food you won’t find in restaurants, only at home.’ Mouneh is sold on many of the stalls in the market and as you walk around the various stallholders constantly call on you to try and buy.

At the muesli man’s stall I hand him the money and he puts the packet of muesli into a bag for me. I extend my hand to take it but he hands it to Jill instead. I’m quick to react, ‘No, no, it’s for me!’ Then I realise he thinks Jill is my servant. It’s very embarrassing, even for him, and as we walk away I say, ‘I’m sorry, I just didn’t see that coming.’ I’m appalled, but typically Jill says something witty in reply and I say, ‘Well at least you’ve got a sense of humour about it.’ Then she murmurs quietly, ‘Lebanon is quite racist, I’ve had a few experiences like that since I arrived.’ When I mention the incident to a colleague, she tells me she drove Jill to the doctor one day and the receptionist insisted she sit in on Jill’s appointment. She had to tell her that Jill was a colleague, and not her maid. This was simply because Jill is black.

Up until the 1970s poor rural women, Palestinian and Kurdish refugees, were the main source of domestic labour. Then these jobs were taken by immigrants from Asia and Africa.


MY FRIEND LARA, who’s Lebanese, insists there is no middle class in Lebanon, yet many people have live-in migrant domestic workers who are referred to in English as ‘maids’. There are even shops that specialise in maids’ uniforms and it’s quite a common sight to see large family groups enjoying themselves in a restaurant while a maid sits alone at a separate table. They are clearly regarded as ‘servants’ rather than workers and their jobs include the minding of young children, housekeeping (cooking, cleaning, laundering), and the provision of care and companionship to older people.

Because of their country of origin, their skin colour and ethnicity marks them out and this high visibility is a source of prestige for the employer and of discrimination for the employee. It is clear that class, ethnicity, nationality, gender and prestige issues are involved in the way live-in domestic workers are received and treated by their employers and the rest of the society. It worries me to think how lonely they must be and how dependent and vulnerable to abuse.

As in many of the host countries where migrant domestic workers are employed their right to fair wages and working conditions are not protected by existing labour laws in Lebanon. In 2008, the year I was living there, a Human Rights Watch investigation found there was on average one death a week from unnatural causes among migrant domestic workers, including suicide and falls from tall buildings.

Eva’s mother lives by herself in a traditional Lebanese stone house with K, her Ethiopian maid, a young woman in her twenties who is always dressed in a maid’s uniform, a cotton long sleeved blouse and pants, and who the family all declare Madame loves ‘the best’. On this cold winter’s night I’ve been invited to dinner to see the heritage-listed traditional stone house where Madame lives. We all cram into a tiny warm room to eat a lentil dish she or perhaps K has prepared. There’s about nine of us and afterwards I’m taken on a tour of the house. It’s beautiful, spacious and tiled throughout and with thick stone walls and high ceilings. Rugs cover the tiled floors and it’s freezing cold, but I can imagine its welcome coolness during the long hot humid summers. I am shown the cupboard, set up high below the ceiling, where the mouneh is stored.

Then we go outside and down some steps to the cellar, which is tucked under the house where the land slopes steeply downhill. Inside is one large room, half of which is taken up by a flat slap of smooth rock that forms the foundations. The cellar is completely empty except for a waist high earthenware amphora perched on the rock in which an uncle is ‘resting’ some arak (a popular alcoholic drink with an aniseed flavour). There are glass slits for windows that look out over a moonlit orchard and lit-up houses in the valley below. I learn that three families including Eva’s lived in the cellar for three months while war and conflict raged around them in the 1980s. It was completely dark even in the day because they had sandbags stacked in front of the windows. During that time they only left the cellar to go upstairs into the house to prepare meals. The children, now grown up, remember this time and one tells me that Madame’s only son committed suicide in his bedroom soon after and Madame refuses to go into that room now.

This is not the only legacy of war and conflict in Madame’s life. Like so many Lebanese families, only one of Madame’s five children lives in Lebanon. Her other three daughters and grandchildren live in faraway safe places – in Sweden, Australia and United States – and although Madam is still feisty and flirtatious, in  her eighties, she can no longer make the long plane trips to visit them. Having K as ‘her maid’ (the word ‘carer’ seems not to be used) allows her to live independently.

On occasions when Eva has a lot of people coming for dinner, as she does on Christmas Eve, she ‘borrows’ K (this usually involves slipping her some extra cash at the end of the night) to help prepare the food and do the clean up afterwards. The members of Eva’s husband’s family have a floor each in a four-storey apartment block built high on the side of a steep valley, with stunning views all the way down a heavily wooded valley to the Mediterranean. At night on her balcony you can see the lights of Jounieh to the south and, beyond that, Beirut.

On Christmas Eve, I take a fifteen-minute rally car kind of ride by taxi up the steep winding mountain road to Eva’s place where I’m greeted by her husband, Jean-Paul, who began work in Abu Dhabi earlier in the year after a long spell of unemployment. He flew in that morning and the house is full of excitement to have him home and now he and their sixteen-year-old son are trying to get the kerosene heater working in the dining room. Unlike in my apartment, there is no central heating and Eva is wearing a pink dressing gown over her clothes to stay warm. I’m surprised to see that her hair hangs wet around her shoulders. All the food had been prepared and all that remains to be done, she tells me, is for the hairdresser to arrive and blow dry and style her hair and that of her daughter (Eva’s son and two daughters live with her, the adult daughter of a previous marriage and her younger daughter, who is thirteen).

The hairdresser and his assistant have been working their way down through all three floors so that one by one the aunts, female cousins and grandmother have their Christmas bouffant blow wave. I am definitely the odd one out with my very short haircut. For the entire evening K sits alone in the unheated kitchen while the family has Christmas dinner and opens their Christmas presents. ‘Is she warm enough?’ I ask. ‘She’s fine,’ I’m told. The ILO estimates there are an estimated fifty-three million domestic workers around the world, but the figure could be closer to a hundred million. In developing countries domestic workers make up to 4 to 12 per cent of wage employees and 83 per cent are women or girls. This source of women’s employment is also the largest sector of the global economy that drives women to migrate.

IDA IS A cheerful young woman from Nepal who lives in the apartment above me. She speaks English and I enjoy chatting with her. She tells me she has a five-year-old son in Nepal whom she misses terribly. She works for a Lebanese family, minding a baby and two older children for a woman who holds a job and whose husband works all year round in one of the Gulf states. Like my friend Eva, it seems that Ida’s employer is effectively a working sole parent. The two older children are a boy and a girl, aged thirteen and nine respectively, and I can’t help noticing that Ida is very affectionate with the girl. I often see them walking along arm in arm. I ask Ida if she would like to go out with me on her day off but she tells me she doesn’t have a day or night off. I say that would be illegal in Australia and she explains that she is on a three-year contract and will only be able to return to Nepal to see her son when that finishes. If she returns after that she will get one day off a week.

The ILO found that 36 per cent of domestic workers are excluded from maternity leave, and 40 per cent have no access to maternity cash benefits, which prevents them taking time off to recover from childbirth or breastfeeding. They are also often forced to leave their children with family in their home country. In a recent interview, ILO maternity protection and work-family specialist Laura Addati argues that domestic workers should be ‘legally entitled to maternity leave, cash and medical benefits, employment protection and non-discrimination, health protection and breastfeeding arrangements at the workplace. Maternity benefits should be financed through social insurance or public funds. Workers should not have to choose between being a parent and providing for their families.’

Suddenly I’m appalled with the whole ‘maid’ thing and can’t help ranting about it to my friend and colleague Robert. ‘I don’t get it, why do people need maids? Don’t people have vacuum cleaners, washing machines, childcare services, fridges? How clean does a house have to be? Can’t you have someone come and clean for three hours a week and do what needs to be done?’ He listens and then says, ‘It’s the same in South Africa.’ He’s South African so what is strange to me is quite normal to him as well. And quite normal to the people around me.

So what of Lara’s contention that there is no middle class in Lebanon? Everyone tells me that the overall wages are low. I think some teachers only earn $1,000 a month and one of the managers tells me a young man who was writing classroom teaching materials for him got a similar job in the UAE at six times what he was paid here. Six times! Then again, Thomas, who’s been doing some word processing for me and is a recent IT graduate, has just landed a job in the payroll office of a large company which involves setting up the software for their electronic payroll system. I’m certain that’s worth a decent wage but he says he will earn $800 a month. ‘Can you live on that?’ I ask, and he tells me he can. He is simply happy to have a job doing what he’s been trained to do. Others are not so lucky and have to leave Lebanon to get work.

Migrant domestic workers provide valuable income to their families and communities in their home countries. In 2004 in the Philippines alone, migrant workers, most of whom were women, contributed US$11.6 billion to the Filipino economy (13.5 per cent of GDP). In 2006 the Asian Development Bank estimated that two million migrants in East and South-Eeast Asia, mostly women, remitted an average of US$300–$500 per month from Hong Kong, China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, that is, more than US$3 billion. In the first half of 2009 Central Bank of Lebanon statistics showed that $37.5 million was transferred to the Philippines, $27 million to Ethiopia, $17.8 million to Sri Lanka, and $9.2 million to Bangladesh

ARSHI IS A young Bangladeshi woman and one of many Bangladeshi women and men employed to do cleaning and gardening jobs by the company I work for. She is married, her husband works as a mechanic, and she speaks Lebanese a little and English barely at all. But she is good at her job and friendly. Initially, my colleague Robert asked her if she would like to do some cleaning and ironing for him for a few hours on the weekend and she agreed, then he sent her down to me and I said she could clean my house as well for two hours a week. We doubled the going rate of 5000 Lebanese pounds per hour to 10,000 LBP an hour for a cleaner, about US$15 for the two hours for me. Then another colleague got her to clean and iron for twice the going rate as well.

With all this extra work and the better pay Arshi begins working for herself and I often see her cleaning in some of the other apartments in our complex. I imagine she is probably earning more in one week now than she previously earned in a month or two. She’s married and her husband works, so I wonder if she would be able to do this if she was here on her own and tied to her sponsor.

Human Rights Watch reported in 2012: ‘Many migrant domestic workers endure long working hours, often with no days or nights off; confinement in the workplace or requiring permission to leave the house; lack of privacy or inadequate place to sleep; inadequate food; verbal, physical and sexual abuse; forced labour and non payment of wages; no sick leave or health insurance; and, in some cases, forced labour and slavery.’

In January 2012 the Lebanese organisation KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation published a report titled Policy Paper on Reforming the Sponsorship System for Migrant Domestic Workers: Towards an Alternative Governance Scheme in Lebanon. It identified the ‘sponsorship system’ (kafala) in Lebanon (and other countries) ‘as a core problem leading to the exploitation and abuse of migrant domestic workers’, and a root cause for their ‘vulnerability to forced labor, physical and sexual abuse, as well as trafficking’. The paper found that ‘in effect the system reinforces the dependency, the master/servant dynamic, and the power imbalance between Lebanese employers and migrant domestic workers’ and ‘severely compromised the employment mobility of workers’.

MY FRIEND ALIISHA lives in a village in the mountains with her husband Elie. When I returned to Lebanon to pack up my things I went to stay at their place while they were in England visiting Alisha’s family. Marie, a young Ethiopian woman, had arrived a month earlier to work for them. Her sister, Ruth, had already been working for Elie’s mother for almost three years. Unlike Ruth, who speaks excellent English and almost fluent Lebanese after three years in the village, Marie speaks little English or Lebanese. Despite this she and I embark on a cookfest while Alisha and Elie are away. Each night we comb Alisha’s cookbooks for recipes to cook. We laugh a lot, draw pictures, use body language to communicate and when all else fails we call Ruth to interpret. We shop for ingredients, go for walks in the village, and call on Elie’s aunt where we help harvest the last of the season’s figs and eat walnuts off the tree. At night we invite Elie’s mum and Ruth to join us for dinner.

The next day I visit Elie’s mother and when I arrive Ruth interprets because my French is hardly fluent and my Lebanese too basic. When Elie’s mother goes out, I have a look around the apartment. It’s downstairs from Alisha and Elie’s place and has the traditional stone vaulted ceiling, which Ruth has been washing down for two days. There is a combined lounge-dining room, one bedroom, a kitchen and a small bathroom off the kitchen. I wonder where Ruth sleeps so I ask and she points to a daybed along the back wall of the communal room. I’m shocked that she has no room of her own, no privacy and nowhere to keep her things.

When I mention this to Alisha she tells me there was some conflict between the two sisters when Marie came to live with her because, unlike Ruth, Marie has her own room with a television, a place to store her things, and Alisha’s been buying her clothes and small items for her hair. Another issue has been that Elie’s sister, who comes from Beirut from time to time, is known to scream abuse at Ruth and even physically assault her. Ruth is feisty and gives it back to her but the power imbalance is too great. There is no escape. And when Ruth saw how kind Alisha was to her sister she became quite jealous.

A review of labour laws in seventy-two countries by the International Labour Organization found that ‘40 per cent did not guarantee domestic workers a weekly rest day, and half did not limit hours of work’. Several factors contribute to this exploitation of migrant domestic workers. They include that work in private households is viewed as being outside the sphere of ordinary labour rights and conditions. The relationship appears to be one of mutual dependence, give and take, ‘we love her and she’s a part of our family’. The employer/employee relationship appears blurred, at least on the side of the employer. For example, in a survey conducted with employers in India, Thailand, Italy and Sweden, 48 per cent of employers did not think a domestic worker should be entitled to a contract, 70 per cent said they should not have the right to join a trade union, 52 per cent were opposed to a minimum wage and 45 per cent said that fixed working hours should not apply. Unfortunately, source countries may fail to ensure domestic workers are protected from exploitive labour agencies and employers while abroad because they welcome the contribution they make to their economies.

ON 8 MARCH 2012 a Lebanese television network showed a clip of an Ethiopian domestic worker, Dechasa-Desisa, being beaten by a labour recruiter outside the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut. Kicking and screaming, she was then forced into a car by two men. No one came to her assistance but an anonymous bystander filmed the incident. Dechasa-Desisa was thirty-three years old and the mother of two children. She arrived in Lebanon in December 2011 (by so-called ‘irregular means’ because Ethiopia has banned workers going to Lebanon due to the large number of human rights abuses).

Police were called and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International identified the man beating her as Ali Mahfouz, the brother of the head of a recruiting agency that brought her to Lebanon. In an interview Mahfouz alleged the agency was trying to return her to Ethiopia because she had mental health problems. Police took Dechasa-Desisa to a detention centre where she was then referred for medical care. She committed suicide at the Deir Al-Saleeb psychiatric hospital two days later. No arrests were made.

Following this tragedy, on 23 March 2012 eight groups in Lebanon – Human Rights Watch, Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation, Anti Racism Movement, Amel Association International, Insan, Danish Refugee Council, and Nasawiya – issued a joint statement, ‘Lebanon: Stop Abuse of Domestic Workers’. This identified that ‘the most common complaints documented by embassies of labor-sending countries and civil society groups include mistreatment by recruiters, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, forced confinement to the workplace, a refusal to provide any time off for the worker, forced labor, and verbal and physical abuse’.

A landmark step forward in promoting and protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers took place on 16 June 2011 at the International Labour Conference in Geneva when members of the ILO – governments, trade unions and employers’ associations – voted in favour of a treaty, ILO Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers (ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention No. 189), to establish international labour standards for domestic workers worldwide.

In Human Rights Watch Annual Report 2012, Nisha Varia and Jo Becker give an account of the negotiations that took place in Geneva to ensure three hundred and ninety-six delegates voted for the Convention (with sixteen against, sixty-two abstaining). As well as noting disappointing support from the European Union, which often tried to ‘weaken suggested provisions’, they reported on the change of heart that took place in many of those present: ‘As negotiations progressed, support for the convention grew. Some states with initially hostile attitudes changed their positions as they heard evidence of the abuses against domestic workers and concrete examples of how legislation in a diverse array of countries could improve domestic workers’ rights. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia), along with Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, reversed early opposition to a legally binding convention and expressed support in the final vote.’

Varia and Becker contend that the adoption of ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention No. 189 would guarantee ‘labour protections equivalent to those of other workers’ for domestic workers. After ratification by Uruguay and the Philippines, the ILO announced on 5 September 2012 that the first global standard for domestic workers would come into force on 5 September 2013.

In October 2012 in Cairo the ILO Regional Office for the Arab States held a conference on ILO Convention No 189 in order to set in motion the initial phase of a long-term (2011-2014) intervention plan to protect the rights of women migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. As a result, a number of activities were put in motion such as the drafting of a standard unified contract; revised conditions and procedures for acquiring work and residence permits; a code of conduct for private placement agencies; better reporting systems on working and living conditions of workers; development of education kits and resources for teachers and students in primary and secondary schools; and an Information Guide for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon – now available online in French, Arabic and English, and soon to be available in Amharic, Tagalog, Madagascan, Sinhala, Tamil, Bengla and Nepalese; and a workshop for labour attachés of the countries of origin.

In February 2012 the minister of labor in Lebanon proposed legislation to protect domestic workers but this has yet to be put in motion, although anti-trafficking legislation to protect victims of trafficking was enacted after the US downgraded Lebanon to tier 3, the worst level, in its 2011 report on trafficking in persons. In situations of abuse by employers, many countries including Lebanon have failed to ensure migrant domestic workers are able to seek help, protection or justice. For example, the 2010 Human Rights Watch report Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers, which reviewed a 114 judicial cases involving migrant domestic workers, found that Lebanon’s judiciary did not generally ‘hold employers accountable when they violate the basic rights of migrant domestic workers’. It concluded that ‘lack of accessible complaints mechanisms, lengthy judicial procedures, and restrictive visa policies dissuade many workers from filing or pursuing complaints against their employers. Even when workers file complaints, the police and judicial authorities regularly fail to treat certain abuses against domestic workers as crimes.’ In conclusion, the report argued for: employers who commit crimes against migrant domestic workers to be prosecuted; a mechanism to allow salary disputes to be resolved in a timely manner; access for victims to legal aid and certified interpreters, training programs for police, immigration officials and judges; and reform of the sponsorship system so that ‘workers can file complaints without fear of detention or deportation’.

ON A POSITIVE note, the ILO published a booklet for prospective migrants to Lebanon that outlined their current rights and included a copy of the contract they must sign with their employers. This may go some way to guaranteeing them some of the basic rights covered by ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention No. 189, including the right to be paid monthly wages in cash or into a bank account; fixed working hours of ten consecutive working hours at most, including eight continuous hours of rest at night; a weekly rest of not less than 24 continuous hours; annual leave of a period of six days; the right to food, clothing and accommodation that respects their dignity and right to privacy; medical care and insurance; the right to receive phone calls and correspondence; and sick-leave entitlements. Unfortunately, the contract does not nominate a minimum wage and still requires the worker to negotiate with the employer for agreement on how they use their weekly time off and annual leave. It states, ‘Both parties shall define its timing and the conditions of its use.’

The issue of sponsorship and the inequities and discrimination this system promotes remains a real obstacle to systemic and cultural change in Lebanon and other places. In January 2012 KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation published a series of recommendations aimed at overhauling the sponsorship system and changing the exploitive master-servant culture. The report by Kathleen Hamill recommended: an increase in labour mobility of migrant domestic workers by installing employment-based visas that do not tie a worker to a particular employer and allows them to resign or terminate their employment contracts; the decoupling of the employer-employee relationship – leaving workers free to leave the household on days off, take vacations or public holidays, and to live out of the workplace if they wish; improvement in recruitment processes through greater regulation of recruitment agencies or replacing them altogether with ‘online, government-facilitated recruiting options’ and alleviating the cost to employers of the initial fees paid; easy exit procedures and bridging visas; mechanisms to investigate and resolve disputes and complaints and ensure workers ‘have the legal and practical ability to take their employers to court or to labour tribunals for any grievances, whether large or small’; establish a national coordinating body to ensure national employment policies are developed and implemented and streamline the steps necessary for ‘entry, residence, employment, transfer and departure of migrant domestic workers’. Hamill recommends the reform of the sponsorship system as just one step in ‘a comprehensive reform process that [also] needs to include migrant domestic workers in the labor code, improve social security policies and institute minimum wage requirements’.

Domestic workers are a valuable source of revenue for their families and countries of origin. As the above examples show, in the countries in which they work they provide valuable domestic labour in childcare, home care and care for elderly people. In the current stage of globalisation of workers the ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention No. 189 is a first step for migrant domestic workers to be granted the same basic labour rights as other workers. Being described as ‘workers’ or ‘domestic workers’ reinforces the need to improve their working conditions and is a clear shift away from the subservience implied by the use of words such as ‘maid’.

The Human Rights Watch activist Nisha Varnia notes in a 2011 article for Canadian Journal of Women and the Law that the ‘most hopeful element of reform and respect’ for these workers is the growing number and strength of services (shelters, helplines, advocacy services), resources, organisations and networks now being generated, as well as the significant role of migrant domestic workers themselves who are ‘taking on stronger leadership roles in organising around their rights, and in particular, in networking and sharing information among their peers’. In general, trade unions in many countries have yet to come on board in support of domestic workers but the Malaysian Trades Union Congress leads the way and has incorporated the rights of domestic workers into ‘their broader labour rights platform. This has yet to happen in other countries that have neglected them in their campaigns.’

Despite cautious optimism, Varnia acknowledges the considerable obstacles and restrictions workers face in sustaining reform movement due to a lack of free time and freedom of movement, uncertain immigration status and the risk of being deported. Despite this, she argues that continuous growing empowerment of migrant domestic workers through membership of advocacy and labour rights organisations, combined with sustained pressure from international agencies such as the ILO and Human Rights Watch, is essential to success in protecting their human rights.

The ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention No. 189 became law on 5 September 2013. By October ten countries had ratified the convention – Bolivia, Germany, Guyana, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay – and many others began developing laws to protect the labour rights of domestic workers (for example Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Morocco, Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, United States, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zambia). Countries that have declared their intention to ratify include Belgium, Benin, Colombia, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya and Tanzania (The ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention: New Standards to Fight Discrimination, Exploitation, and Abuse, Human Rights Watch).

While the Convention has been an important first step in achieving global justice for domestic workers, at the celebrations after its adoption on 10 June 2011 in Geneva, Myrtle Witbooi, Chair of the International Domestic Workers Network and a former domestic worker from South Africa, warned there was still much to be done: ‘The fight is not over. We need to go back home. We need to campaign. We need to be sure that what we vote for is implemented. We must not rest until our governments ratify the convention. We cannot be free until we free all the domestic workers.’

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About the author

Annee Lawrence

Annee Lawrence is a writer and editor with a PhD in creative writing from the Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University (WSU).She...

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