Q&A with Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery

As part of our sector focus on domestic workers, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership conducted a Q&A with Urmila Bhoola, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery on the topic of domestic workers within the context of her mandate.

Ms. Bhoola touched upon the links between domestic work and servitude, her recommendations to States to ensure the respect of the human rights of migrant domestic workers, and also shared some uplifting insights and stories from the field.


Ms. Urmila Bhoola. Photo credit: UN

CWGL: In September 2018, you presented a report to the Human Rights Council making the links between domestic work and contemporary forms of slavery. Can you tell us how why addressing domestic work through the framework of slavery and servitude is important?

UB: As outlined in my report to the Human Rights Council presented in September 2017 (A/HRC/39/52), women migrant domestic workers often accept a legitimate job offer but end up in slavery or in domestic servitude, which is a slavery-like practice. This can result from debt bondage, which occurs for instance where excessive recruitment fees are charged by agents. The domestic worker ends up not earning any income as this goes to paying off the debt to the agent or employer. She might also be improper accommodation, sleeping on the floor in the employer’s home, fed scraps of food and subjected to controls over her movement, retention of her passports and other forms of control by the employer. Using this lens to view exploitation of domestic workers allows this form of exploitation to be highlighted through legal and political advocacy, including calling on states to regulate recruitment agents. It also allows domestic workers to seek remedies for their exploitation under international and regional human rights and labour law. Domestic servitude could also be considered forced labour under the International Labour Organisation’s conventions if the indicators of forced labour are present. Slavery and forced labour are prohibited in almost every country in the world and hence redress is available.

CWGL: What are they key issues or problems that you found?

UB: The human rights situation of domestic workers, including of migrant workers in domestic servitude, remains largely invisible, as it is confined to the private sphere, and is not identified by labour inspectors. It is also directly related to increasing globalization, governments’ macroeconomic policies which support migration in the domestic and care economy, unemployment, inequality, natural disasters, conflict and demographic changes that push women into migrating for work in countries of the global north.

Domestic workers face some of the poorest working conditions across the care economy and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Most victims of abuse and exploitation in domestic work are women. Paid domestic work is a highly feminized sector, with recent estimates indicating that there are 70 million domestic workers employed by households worldwide, of which 49.2 million are women (70 per cent) and 11.5 million are migrant women.

Frequently driven by poverty, domestic workers, including migrants, often find themselves forced to accept working and living conditions that violate their fundamental human rights. On that basis, many migrant domestic workers are exposed to multiple types of abuse, such as physical and social isolation; restriction of movement; psychological, physical and sexual violence; intimidation and threats; retention of identity documents by the employer; withholding of wages; abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime. If one or more of these situations applies, the ILO considers it to constitute forced labour. If those indicators of forced labour are combined with a lack of choice and strong control over their personal freedom, which many employers exercise, domestic workers may find themselves trapped in servitude, or even slavery.

Many migrant domestic workers are subject to sexual harassment and to gender-based violence that is often ignored or considered a personal matter, rather than a rights violation for which the employer is responsible. Certain instances of abuse by employers can potentially amount to torture and several deaths of domestic workers have been made public in the recent past. Discriminatory or even racist treatment of migrant domestic workers is frequent.

Another problem is that many domestic workers do not report abuse because they are not familiar with reporting channels, they do not trust governmental authorities or do not have access to the justice system under national laws. In other instances, they report crimes of forced labour or servitude, or of violence and abuse, but are not taken seriously by the authorities and the judiciary. Another obstacle is the absence of safe reporting channels. In many countries, a complaint of a migrant worker cannot be filed without the involvement of the immigration authorities, which exposes victims to the authorities rather than enabling them to access services and protection mechanisms. If victims of servitude and of other human rights violations were able to file complaints, regardless of their migration status, and adequate firewalls between labour and immigration ministries were in place, their access to justice and protection from servitude, exploitation and abuse could be enhanced.

The existing structural barriers to accessing justice for victims of servitude contribute to a culture of impunity among perpetrators.

Private employment agencies play an essential role in recruiting migrant domestic workers. Often, these employment agencies operate without regulatory scrutiny which exacerbates the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to trafficking, bonded labour, forced labour and servitude.

CWGL: What are some recommendations to address this situation?

UB: To effectively prevent and combat domestic servitude, to ensure the protection of migrant women and their access to decent work, I recommended in my report a number of steps which States can and should take: For example, to (a) Create viable, accessible and non-discriminatory employment options for women as a sustainable alternative to poverty and to prevent exploitation; (b) Implement international human rights law and international labour law to ensure protection of the fundamental human rights of migrant domestic workers; (c) Ratify and implement the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, and implement the core conventions, including the Forced Labour Convention and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

There are many other measures which States can take to improve the working and living conditions of domestic workers, including of migrants such as:

  • Support the adoption of an ILO instrument on ending violence against and harassment of women and men in the world of work, including in paid care work;
  • Enact and enforce criminal legislation prohibiting slavery, servitude and forced labour;
  • Adopt and implement labour and social protection laws which extend to all domestic workers, including migrant domestic workers;
  • Guarantee equal access for migrant women to services such as health care, including sexual and reproductive health care, and social protection. Also ensure that they have access to information materials in relevant languages;
  • Guarantee the rights to assembly and to freedom of association for workers, including migrant domestic workers;
  • Allow for collective bargaining in the domestic sector by promoting social dialogue involving tripartite partners in countries of origin, transit and destination;
  • Avoid the isolation of domestic workers by ensuring their freedom of movement and access to communication;
  • End sponsorship systems and prohibit the retention of passports or other identity documents by employers, introduce an independent immigration status and grant a grace period to migrant domestic workers to find new employment when leaving an employer;
  • Establish accessible, safe and effective complaint mechanisms for victims of domestic servitude in order to increase the number of incidents reported;
  • Investigate all allegations of domestic servitude with due diligence by also ensuring that victims of servitude have effective access to a remedy without discrimination;
  • Promote informed decision-making and a shift in the attitudes of employers regarding the human rights of domestic workers, including of migrants, through awareness-raising and information campaigns in languages understandable to migrant workers.

CWGL: Can you share a story, a realization, or an interesting thing that you learned through the course of your research?

UB: One of the most inspiring people I met in doing this research was Eni Lestari, the current head of the International Migrants’ Alliance. Driven by the need to support her family, deeply affected by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Eni decided to leave for Hong Kong and work for a Chinese family in 1999. A salary offer of 180 USD seemed to offer much better prospects in supporting her family than being in Indonesia. However, in Hong Kong, she experienced labor abuse as she was not allowed any day off in the first three months and was severely underpaid. With the help from other Indonesian migrants, she ran away from her employer and got in touch with the Asian Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM). APMM offered her a shelter at Bethune House and informed her about her basic rights and how to fight for her case. Since then, she has been in the forefront of organizing and advocating for policy changes in the realm of the rights of women migrant workers. Her story reflects how important it is for domestic migrant workers to have access to support, to organise and to know their rights.

I was also uplifted by some of the good practices I came across during my research:

Domestic workers in diplomatic households face a significant risk of abuse and exploitation as their residence permits are commonly linked to their employers, leading to a major protection gap based on the dependency and vulnerability of the domestic worker. Accessing justice is very difficult for domestic workers in diplomatic households owing to the immunity of the employer. In recent years, however, efforts led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to prevent domestic servitude in diplomatic households have resulted in normative changes in at least 16 OSCE States which has made a real difference in the lives of domestic workers. There is still a lot of work ahead to end domestic servitude but also a number of other States have taken steps in the right direction, as I noted in my report. These are encouraging signs.

CWGL: What was the reception of the report like at the GA? How did state parties react to it?

UB: There was much support for my report to the GA, which was on the gender-related dimensions of contemporary forms of slavery, with a particular focus on structural discrimination against women and girls as both a cause and a consequence of various manifestations of slavery (A/73/139). A number of delegations, including from the European Union intervened. In response, I noted that regional organizations such as the EU play a critical role in ensuring that women and girls fully participate in decision-making processes and in identifying the specific geographical and economic impacts and manifestations of contemporary forms of slavery.

I also mentioned that there is a global “rush to the bottom” in supply chains which has a strong detrimental impact on decent work. With regard to migrant women in domestic work, for example, I stressed that fraudulent recruitment practices need to be reversed and that information about working conditions and available complaint mechanisms in receiving countries needs to be more accessible. Finally, I noted that the UN plays an important role in consolidating initiatives against contemporary forms of slavery, particularly in cross-cutting areas such as trafficking in persons and violence in the workplace, amongst others.

CWGL: Do you have any thoughts on what the ILO instrument currently under development on violence and harassment in the world of work should include to address the challenges faced by migrant domestic workers?

UB: It should ensure that States impose obligations on all businesses irrespective of their size or turnover, thus even the single employer of a domestic worker, to create a working environment that is free of all forms of violence and harassment. The ILO instrument should also require States to ensure that their labour laws allow for inspections of private homes to identify any abuse, harassment or violence experienced by domestic workers. Complaint mechanisms should make it easy for domestic workers to report issues of harassment or violence in the workplace, and effective remedies should exist for workers whose rights have been violated.


You can read more from our Domestic Worker Sector Focus here.