By Priya Deshingkar
Domestic workers who number at least 67 million adults worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization, have been in focus recently as a particularly vulnerable group of workers. These workers are often hidden from the public gaze and not covered adequately by labour laws leaving them vulnerable to abuse. Indeed a number of rights organisations and prominent photographers including Steve McCurry have highlighted the horrendous abuse that they can suffer. The occupation is highly gendered – most migrant domestic workers are female due to stereotypes and cultural norms related to men’s and women’s work and their capabilities in both source and destination societies.
There are now high-level efforts to protect domestic workers against exploitation but our research shows that the outcomes of this protective legislation may not be what was intended. Two of these processes are worth mentioning. First, the focus on domestic work by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Urmila Bhoola, in her report to the Human Rights Council highlights the plight of “marginalized women workers in the global domestic economy” (para 11). The same report notes that 11.5 million domestic workers are international migrants, or 17.2% of all domestic workers and 7.7% of all migrant workers worldwide (para. 31). Bhoola notes that the domestic work sector accounted for 24% of all forced labour in 2017 (para 43). Labour market intermediaries or brokers and private employment agencies as well as other parts of the migration industry such as pre-departure training centres, transport companies, travel agencies, medical testing centres and visa offices have also been implicated in creating an “enabling environment for abuse and human rights violations” (para. 58 and 60).
Second, the Trafficking in Persons report of the US Department of State which ranks countries based on their performance in combating trafficking lists domestic work as an occupation to watch. It ranks both Ghana and Ethiopia as tier 2 countries and has pressured them to criminalise migration for domestic work as well as the people who facilitate such migration. Non-compliance carries the threat of withdrawing millions of dollars of aid. Domestic work is mentioned as an occupation requiring action to curb trafficking and forced labour. Both countries had introduced bans on migration for domestic work to the Middle East. While Ethiopia lifted the ban this year, it has replaced that with heavy regulation of employment agencies which still illegalises informal agencies. Both have introduced a number of measures to control trafficking and smuggling: Ethiopia has Anti-Trafficking Task Forces across the country. A number of checkpoints have been set up along the Wollo to Galafi route on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border. Additionally local leaders have been co-opted into forming anti-human trafficking committees to police migrants. Similarly Ghana passed The 2005 Human Trafficking Act, amended in 2009, which criminalizes sex and labour trafficking. Here too a number of well-known brokers have been arrested and imprisoned and the business has been driven out of view.
In 2009 the Ethiopian government arranged for the evacuation of 160,000 migrants from Saudi Arabia. Rather than alleviating the hardship and reducing the vulnerabilities of these women, the step appears to have precipitated remigration to the Middle East. As one evacuated migrant observed “Our government, through its embassy in Saudi, was promising to facilitate different things for us. But the promise was not on the ground when we came here. I do not have a job right now; I am using the money I brought from Saudi. If the condition continues like this, and if I do not get any other alternative here, I will migrate again. The government has not given us the working area; the rent for a small shop is very high. I am paying 2,000 birr for a single room to live in.”
Perhaps this is why despite the criminalisation of both the migrants and the people they rely on to make migration possible, it continues unabated. If anything, it has grown and the country that has been named most often for the worst cases of abuse, Saudi Arabia, seems to be the destination of choice. What has changed is that the process has become far more risky.
Agencies and brokers that once traded openly have now become clandestine actors. Routes and travel methods have changed to avoid detection. In Ghana those wishing to travel to the Gulf counties must now travel overland to other West African countries before they fly to their destination. This increases the journey time and costs and can bring new risks if the overland journey is in cramped vehicles through hazardous territory. In Ethiopia large groups do not cross the desert with a broker (a “trafficker” in the popular discourse) as visualised in the popular imagination and instead split up and this can increase risks for women travelling on their own.
Furthermore, the delegitimisation of brokers appears to have spawned smuggling networks with more nefarious practices such as deception related to the terms of employment and placement without ensuring adequate protection; long journeys through virgin territory with few facilities and “safe houses” across the border (or detention centres as they are called in the press) where migrants are kept while they wait for their relatives to transfer money to brokers. Travelling without work permits and papers creates another set of vulnerabilities for migrants as they are often employed informally, without legally recognised contracts. This places them in a situation of hyper-precarity where threats of deportation and imprisonment can be used by employers to extract forced labour.
What is needed is a system of educating aspiring migrants about the possible risks of working without a proper contract, the provision of support services along the way and at destination. Blanket bans and criminalisation will not protect people against forced labour and exploitation. A serious rethink based on research-based evidence is needed.