Sunday, August 20, 2017

Servants, Servitude and Slavery

  More than 15 million women work as servants in private households in Asia and the Middle East. Many are exploited, mistreated and sexually abused by their employers.  Millions of women, men even children employed in domestic work, who cannot be accurately counted because most of them not registered. These women and men sweep, swab, clean, cook, serve the more privileged.

 The problem goes beyond the poor wages and the lack of legal protection. It extends to the very attitude held towards domestic workers that is so entrenched that it doesn’t even change with the generations.  Employers care little about how many people does she support with her meagre wages?  ‘Human trafficking’ began to be recognised as a serious crime, and the United Nations negotiated international conventions to address it. These conventions require member states to incorporate international standards into their domestic legal frameworks. In Tanzania, but human rights campaigners say it is a major problem for the country. There are laws prohibiting all forms of child labor for anyone under the age of 14 and allowing only light work for children aged between 14 and 18. But because child labor is largely informal and unregulated, critics say the legislation is being poorly implemented. A government survey  in conjunction with the International Labour Organization (ILO) says there are more than 4 million child laborers in Tanzania aged between 5 and 17. Of those doing domestic work, girls make up the vast majority – more than 84 percent.

 Domestic workers may pay high recruitment fees to labour brokers, essentially paying for a position that will trap them in debt bondage. Vague employment contracts – or contract terms that change once they arrive in the country – allow for abuses such as excessive hours, the denial of requests for time off, dangerous working conditions, forced labour, and wage theft to occur. In  Middle Eastern countries they are subject to the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties work and residency permits to a single employer who consequently has near-absolute power in the employer-employee relationship.

 Migrant domestic workers often face extreme isolation in the workplace, i.e. their employer’s household. They often experience verbal, physical, and sexual violence, as well as inappropriate housing and sleeping conditions, and are therefore denied their dignity and their safety. If they are undocumented, they are even more vulnerable to exploitation. They are not registered in the social security system; they are neither allowed to get married during the employment period nor have children (which means they cannot take maternity leave); they are excluded from the minimum wage for locals; and their wages are decided in a bilateral agreement between receiving and the sending countries.

 Many migrant workers receive no training prior to their departure and often have limited information about the country of destination, the local customs, and the conditions and nature of their work. On other occasions, workers are described one job, which turns out to be dramatically different when they arrive on site, far from their support networks and with little knowledge of their rights. In worst-case scenarios, unscrupulous labour brokers deceive migrant workers and traffic them into situations of forced labour.

 Lacking awareness of the regulations, laws, procedures, and services available to domestic workers who find themselves in exploitative situations, many workers leave the workplace to escape violence and improper working conditions. They usually go to their embassy or to the recruitment agency that brought them to the country. However, given their weak position and subjection to the kafala system, they are usually returned to the employer to work under the same exploitative conditions.
In other cases, an abused worker may escape her employer-sponsor and go underground, working without a passport or without valid work and residency permits on an hourly or daily basis. In this case, the worker is breaking the law and runs the risk of being tracked by the police, detained, and deported. She then becomes an easy target for black-market brokers of work permits and at risk of greater exploitation.

 A case in point is the story of an Indian housemaid who had not been paid her monthly wages by her Saudi employer for the past six years. The lady from the Indian state of Kerala, was sent to her present employer six years ago as a domestic help through a recruiting office back in her home country. Her contract stipulated that she be paid a monthly wage of 900 Saudi riyal. After her arrival, she was taken aback when she was told by her Saudi sponsor that her salary was 700 riyal, and that was the arrangement he had with the recruitment company that had sent her. With no choice but to continue, she began her household duties. Her employer paid her during the first four months, but then all payments stopped while she continued working. He kept making one excuse after another, and she had no way to collect her dues except to keep holding on to her job with the hope that eventually she would get paid.

 This went on for years, and her employer virtually held her hostage in his residence to serve his family while not paying her wages. She was not allowed to contact anyone and thus had to bear the indignity of playing the role of an unrewarded slave. Such employers believe they own the worker and can get away with just about anything. Such unscrupulous employers somehow manage to escape justice and the cycle of injustice simply continues.

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