Behind closed doors - Protecting and promoting the human rights of migrant domestic workers in an irregular situation
Research reports, working paper
Around the world more than 50 million people, many of them women, are domestic workers. Of these, a significant number are migrants, including migrants who are in an irregular situation. The work they do is invaluable. Among a myriad other tasks, domestic workers clean, iron clothes, cook, garden, provide home health care, drive, and take care of children and older persons. This is necessary work, but work that often goes unnoticed, particularly when it is undertaken by irregular migrants who work unseen behind closed doors.
In fact, labour legislation in several countries does not even recognize domestic work and often excludes domestic workers from access to rights and protections that are enjoyed by other categories of workers. Domestic workers often lack access to rights, to
justice and to protection both as women and as migrants, creating an environment that often leads to serious human rights abuse. The situation of migrant domestic workers in an irregular situation is even more vulnerable. They are disproportionately subjected to human rights abuse, violations which often occur inside homes, where those responsible are able to operate with impunity and where victims are unseen and unprotected. The pattern of human rights abuses is similar all over the world.
Migrant domestic workers in an irregular situation face exploitative working conditions and discrimination, they lack access to basic economic, social and cultural rights and are exposed to sexual and gender-based violence. If they live in their workplace, they can be forcibly confined, lack privacy, be deprived of food and sleep, and are often prohibited from contacting their families and friends. In some countries they are subject to invasive medical tests and can be fired if they become pregnant.
Very often, domestic workers are not permitted to marry. Moreover, if they flee abuse, they may be detained for lacking documents and may be denied access to social or health services or legal remedies. At risk of xenophobia and violence in the community as well as in the workplace, many may be afraid to report their suffering to the police or other authorities for fear of deportation.
This publication sheds light on the often hidden experience of irregular migrant domestic workers, and challenges Governments to take appropriate protective measures. It emphasizes that migrant domestic workers, regardless of whether they are male or female, children or adults, in a regular or irregular situation, are entitled to all fundamental human rights, without discrimination of any kind. The publication is illustrated by the experiences of two women who have lived the abuse and uncertainty that is documented here, and I express my gratitude to Marcela and Maryfe for their courage in sharing their stories. Their names and some identifying details of their stories have been altered for their protection.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
High Commissioner for Human Right