This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Women from forty countries—nannies, housecleaners, community organizers and trade unionists—gathered in Uruguay at the end of October to establish the first global federation of domestic workers. There were few television cameras, no celebrities to give a keynote speech, no large commitments of donor aid. In fact there were none of the trappings of the numerous international conferences to fight the enormous social ills of forced labor, trafficking and labor exploitation.
Yet this modest gathering included some of the most effective and visionary activists for both local and global change, and their growing movement to advance domestic workers’ rights has won remarkable achievements. Their efforts have contributed to the adoption of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, the first global labor standards for a historically neglected workforce that numbers more than 50 million worldwide. This treaty, adopted two years ago, entered into force on September 5.
The domestic workers’ rights movement has powerful lessons for the broader fight against forced labor, trafficking and servitude. This fight has often focused heavily on a criminal justice approach, measured by counting prosecutions, but has been relatively vague on how to prevent those abuses from happening in the first place.
Since the domestic workers treaty was adopted two years ago, on the other hand, the people who gathered in Uruguay have helped bring about new laws and other legal advances to protect domestic workers in more than twenty-five countries. Moreover, they have increased their strength with tens of thousands of new members in their affiliates and partner organizations.
The estimates of trafficking and forced labor are staggering. Precise statistics are impossible given the hidden and criminal nature of these abuses, but the International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are in forced labor. A recent index measuring “modern-day slavery,” released in October by the organization Walk Free, put the figure at almost 30 million for a broader category including forced labor, trafficking and other forms of servitude, such as child marriage.
Domestic work, hidden in private homes and poorly regulated and monitored, is one of the main sectors in which such serious human rights abuses thrive.
These grim figures focus on the worst forms of abuse. But many of the estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide— mostly women and girls, many of them migrants—experience a wide array of related abuses and labor exploitation. These can include low and delayed wages, excessively long work hours, lack of rest and hazardous work conditions. It is often the cumulative impact of multiple abuses that amount to forced labor: for example, a worker made to labor around the clock, against her will or under threat of punishment, who cannot leave the workplace freely and who has not been paid in six months. When these kinds of abuses happen to workers who were recruited or transferred through force, fraud, or coercion, this amounts to trafficking.