Human trafficking

Labour migration: The dark side of the coin

A new ILO study exposes the pitfalls of labour migration for women domestic workers both within India and abroad and provides policy-makers and service providers with deeper insight into the nature of forced labour and trafficking in the region.

Feature | 29 July 2015
NEW DELHI (ILO News) – Jameela, a 50-year old Indian woman, needed money to support her family. She didn’t think she would find much, if any, funds close to home. She got in touch with an agent who arranged for her to leave Mallapuram, Kerala in southwest India to work abroad.

Upon leaving India, she, like many female labour migrants, had only a very minimal understanding of the working conditions at her destination. It didn’t turn out as she had hoped.

“I worked from 5am to 11pm cooking, cleaning and ironing for a family and their guests. I was rudely scolded, even slapped a few times by my employer, the lady of the house. I could only eat the leftovers they gave me if and when I had time. Once I got sick and a week’s wages were deducted. I was not allowed to talk to other workers in the house,” said Jameela of her experience as a domestic worker in a household in a Persian Gulf state.

Overworked, mistreated and trapped in this difficult situation far from home, Jameela managed to find an escape route, returning to India after enduring this treatment for one year.

Indispensable yet unprotected

She is one of the persons surveyed in a new International Labour Organization (ILO) study entitled, Indispensable yet unprotected: Working conditions of Indian domestic workers at home and abroad (2015).

The study, done in collaboration with the Self Employed Women's Association in India (SEWA), examines two of the most frequented migrant routes for Indian female domestic workers: from the state of Kerala in Southern India to the Arab countries and from Jharkhand state in Eastern India to New Delhi.

In surveying a number of migrants and would-be migrants, the study sought to understand the problems of migrant labour in domestic work and to assess the nature and extent of abuse.

It concluded that the majority of migrant domestic workers to the Arab States and some of the internal migrants from Jharkhand are victims of trafficking and forced labour according to international definitions of these crimes.

Abuses encountered by domestic workers

The growing role of informal intermediaries and unscrupulous private employment agencies operating outside the legal and regulatory framework that prey particularly on low-skilled workers can lead to abuses including the following:
  • Deception about the nature and conditions of work
  • Retention of passports
  • Deposits and illegal wage deductions
  • Debt bondage (linked to repayment of often high recruitment fees)
  • Threats if workers want to leave their employers
A combination of these abuses can amount to human trafficking and forced labour.

In 2013, the government of India adopted the Criminal Law Amendment Act which declared trafficking an offence in national law. It defines exploitation as any act of physical exploitation or any form of sexual exploitation, slavery, or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the forced removal of organs. India has also developed a National Plan of Action and is working on putting in place remedial measures.

Vulnerable and isolated

Poor, Indian women, especially those who are single or widowed, are particularly vulnerable to distress migration. Some factors which underpin this vulnerability are: lack of skills, awareness, income-generating opportunities, land and assets; illiteracy; and suffering social inequalities due to caste and ethnicity.

© B. Patel / ILO
“Many domestic workers are still not protected by national labour laws; instead they are exposed to overly restrictive immigration laws and policies. Their isolation in private homes, lack of information and support can lead to exploitation. It is time to change that,” said Beate Andrees, Head of the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour.

A number of the women surveyed for the study had restrictions imposed upon them such as not being allowed to go out of the house or allowed to talk to other workers and not having any leave.

Some receiving countries, however, have taken steps towards better protection of migrant domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia, there is shelter in Riyadh for domestic workers who need help in obtaining exit visas to return home or in claiming unpaid wages from their employers. The Ministry of Labour has begun penalizing employers who have mistreated their workers by barring them from hiring foreign workers for five years or, in some cases, for life.

Some women are fortunate enough to find decent working conditions in their jobs abroad and within India: they are treated well, regularly paid fair wages and can earn significantly more than they would in their home environments.

ILO standards for migrants, domestic workers

Nevertheless, more progress is needed both in countries of labour emigration and immigration. The ILO is assisting member States to provide adequate protection.

The 2014 Protocol to the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention (C.29, 1930) and a Recommendation on Supplementary Measures for the Effective Suppression of Forced Labour (R203, 2014) play a critical role in creating a level playing field for recruitment and placement of workers, particularly across borders.

The new Protocol stipulates an obligation to punish perpetrators of forced labour and to end the impunity that is pervasive in so many countries. The ILO is advocating for the ratification of the Forced Labour Protocol by at least 50 countries by 2018, with Niger being the first nation to ratify this new labour standard in May 2015.

In addition, the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C.189, 2011) provides a solid framework for respect of migrant domestic worker’s rights at home and abroad. It has been ratified by 21 countries.

These international standards, if implemented, should allow Jameela and the estimated 44 million female domestic workers worldwide, to work in decent conditions. In so doing, a win-win situation will benefit both employees and employers.