In Europe, the trend in recent years has been towards an increase in migrants among domestic workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women. These workers are exposed to exploitation and abuse due to several factors, including the lack of recognition of their work as a proper job (as a result of gender stereotyping), their heavy dependence on the employer (especially if they live in the employer’s house), but also due to a lack of clear legal protection. Furthermore, many migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable because of their irregular situation or the undeclared nature of their work. However, even those whose stay and employment are fully legal are vulnerable because general legislation is not adapted to their needs, and specific legislation, where it exists, often provides them with less protection than other categories of workers. Indeed, some of their problems are caused by legislation which restricts their access to a range of economic and social rights that are available to other workers or restricts their possibility of changing an abusive employer. Moreover, there is often a mismatch between the realities of the job market on the one hand and migration policies and legislation on the other.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has included migration as one of the six thematic global priorities to guide the work of her Office (OHCHR) for the biennium 2010- 2011. Protecting human rights in the context of migration is one of the focus areas of work for the OHCHR Regional Office for Europe in Brussels (ROE). The ROE convened an International Legal Colloquium in Brussels from 25 to 26 May 2010 with the objective of exploring the applicability of existing international human rights standards to the situation of migrant domestic workers in Europe and of sharing good practices in addressing the human rights challenges which migrant domestic workers face. The Colloquium identified several possible ways of taking up these issues. On the international level, the adoption of a new International Labour Organization (ILO) instrument (a Convention accompanied by a Recommendation) appears to be essential for providing general guarantees such as availability of information on terms and conditions of employment, working-time provisions (including rest and freedom of movement during rest periods), choice (but not requirement) of residing in the home of the employer, provisions against child labour, prohibiting employers from keeping domestic workers’ documents, and protection against abuse and harassment.
On the national level, the participants highlighted the need for legislation that provides the same standard of rights for domestic workers as for other categories of workers. It might be necessary to address some of their specific vulnerabilities in legislation (e.g. specific ways of inspecting working conditions where the workplace is not generally accessible), without these specific points being used as an excuse to restrict the rights of these workers. Above all, the Colloquium identified a need to overcome the obstacles stemming from excessively restrictive immigration legislation applied to migrant domestic workers, such as restrictions on their right to change their employer or occupational sector.