“I know that there are no limits to which the powers of privilege will not go to keep the workers in slavery.”
~ Mother Jones
Domestic servitude is a special category of labor trafficking: the plight of domestic workers such as maids, servants, housekeepers, child-care givers, those caring for the elderly, the ill, and the infirm. In many instances, some of these duties may overlap. It constitutes the second highest incidence of forced labor in this country. Every year U.S. citizens and foreign nationals living in the U.S. bring thousands of domestic workers into the country. Many of them suffer abuse, ending up essentially held in bondage. Frequently these are young women who have been promised an education in America but rarely get what they bargained for. Visas normally require that domestic service workers remain with their original employer or face deportation. This tends to discourage workers from reporting abuse. Additionally, monitoring is impossible as the work takes place hidden in private homes. Violence and sexual abuse are common. Even American citizens employed as domestics find they are excluded from almost all the fair labor practice laws that normally apply in other fields.
In western Nepal, as many as 25,000 young girls are sold into indentured servitude by their impoverished parents for as little as $30. Known as Kamlaris, these girls are sold like cattle. They are physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. In Haiti, also one of the world’s poorest countries, the practice of domestic servitude has become virtually institutionalized. Nearly a quarter million impoverished children – mostly young girls – are forced to work as unpaid domestic servants in major Haitian cities. Called restavèks, these very poor children are sent by their parents to live in other homes with the idea that they would have access to education and food. As with most all trafficked persons, rarely are these dreams fulfilled. Restavèks are prone to beatings, sexual assaults and other abuses by host families. According to the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation, the plight of these children has become even more dire in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January, 2010. In the populous nations of India and Pakistan, child domestic servitude and forced child labor are rampant problems. But this form of abuse can be found, to varying extents, in all areas of the world including the more economically developed nations.
In New York City, over 200,000 domestic workers struggle, yet they have always been specifically excluded from the basic rights and protections afforded to most other workers. Following years of effort, a new law has just been enacted in New York State : the “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights,” It extends to these workers some of the minimal protections that most of us take for granted. Domestic Workers United has been in the forefront of advocating for this legislation to help address the triple burden of sexism, racism, and class discrimination faced by so many of these workers.
New York City and the greater metropolitan area are particularly afflicted by this form of labor abuse because of several factors. We are a main transportation hub served by three international airports. Our patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods allows foreign workers to easily blend into the city’s fabric. We host a large affluent population who can afford domestic help in the first place. Beside being a major world financial center, NYC hosts the United Nations giving us a unique concentration of ambassadors, diplomats, and their attendant families and staffs who are permitted to travel here under special diplomatic visas. Sadly these privileges are often abused. It is hoped that the new law will at least give workers some recourse when they encounter abuse, and that the law may be used as a model in extending protection to workers in all states.
Exploited Indonesian Maids Are Hong Kong’s ‘Modern-Day Slaves’, By Per Liljas, Time World, Jan. 15, 2014
Trafficked maids to order: The darker side of richer India, By Nita Bhalla, December 4, 2012
The Servant Problem, The Economist, Dec. 17, 2011: Britain in the early 20th century and Brazil in the early 21st have in common an issue that infuriates the rich, empowers the poor and delights dramatists.
Domestic Workers United, (DWU) organizes to build power, establish fair labor standards, and raise the level of respect for domestic workers.