Behind Closed Doors

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current features, Features

Photo: Anti-slavery international

Photo: Anti-slavery international

In homes across Europe, domestic workers labour behind closed doors. Many live where they work: in a world which is both public and private, but on the margins of both. Without regular labour inspections, workers are more vulnerable here than elsewhere. And for migrants employed far from home, the risk of exploitation is high.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that 20.9 million people are in forced labour situations worldwide, and 9 million of those are thought to have migrated to work. Yet estimates are just that – estimates. They rely on sketchy data, and in reality very little is known about the extent of exploitation in certain sectors of the labour market.

Anti-trafficking campaigners and policy makers have focused their efforts on the more ‘scandalous’ sex industry or overtly public sectors such as agriculture, and have neglected others. Until now, little attention has been given to migrant domestic workers – amongst the least visible and least valued labour market. Many such workers fill crucial caring roles, rejected by even the chronically unemployed in our aging societies. But hidden behind closed doors, domestic migrant workers have remained more or less invisible.

To be invisible is to be vulnerable. At the junction of the public and the private, indistinct boundaries in domestic working environments are ripe for exploitation. Often described by their employers as ‘friends’ or expected to be grateful for the work, domestic workers live alongside their wage-payers. ‘Situations of trafficking in domestic work are not only employment based,’ says Alexandra Ricard-Guay, Research Associate at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies. They can also include child fostering and arrangements of marriage. Domestic workers may be involved in personal aspects of their employer’s private life, not from 9-5 but twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As such, the lines of responsibility are easily blurred, and an abusive relationship can gradually emerge. ‘Exploitation is a slippery slope,’ says Anna Triandafyllidou, coordinator of a new research project (DemandAT) into severe exploitation in domestic work. ‘It can start by paying badly or not respecting rest hours and it can drive you to a severe exploitation situation.’

Yet not all migrant domestic workers are exploited. Neil Howard, Research Fellow at the EUI’s Migration Policy Centre, argues that conventional anti-trafficking measures are too quick to condemn employers and ‘liberate’ workers. He welcomes the idea of a universal basic income to protect workers from exploitation, but criticises aid when, for example, it ‘translates into preventing women from engaging in labour migration into the sex industry because we assume this is bad for them and they’d be better off at home.’

To unilaterally condemn the situations of migrant domestic workers as trafficking could similarly result in just further domination, exploitation and exclusion. ‘Our societies are aging, our societies are affluent, and even unemployed people don’t want to do this kind of work,’ says Anna Triandafyllidou. There are migrant workers who do want to work in the domestic sector, and there is a demand for the services they can provide. ‘So make it happen legally, properly, make sure workers are informed, protected,’ she argues.

Whilst every EU country has anti-trafficking legislation intended to protect workers, Ricard-Guay says that anti-trafficking efforts are just one part of a solution, ‘which must focus on decent work conditions and protection of all workers, including those who are undocumented.’

Some EU member states have taken steps to increase the visibility of domestic workers and reduce the number working in exploitative conditions. In Italy, and also Belgium, police officers literally wear two caps. Rather than waiting to receive a search warrant, carabiniere take off their police hat and don that of a labour inspector, allowing them to enter any workplace and investigate working conditions.

For Howard, ‘a massive increase in labour inspection and the automatic granting of leave to remain to anyone found in a situation of so-called trafficking’ could improve the transparency of all labour sectors without denying the agency of migrant workers themselves. Anna Triandafyllidou also agrees that regular labour inspections ought to be standard practice in the domestic labour market, and recommends greater dialogue with domestic workers about their conditions. Even just to ask ‘are you OK, is everything going OK?’ could, Triandafyllidou says, make a big difference. ‘This is an important and not very expensive measure,’ she adds.

Regulating the public/private borderland of domestic labour is complicated. But for Anna Triandafyllidou, starting a conversation about labour rights in domestic work is half the battle. ‘Employers need to be better informed about what they do,’ she says. Practical measures which open the door to dialogue about domestic working conditions could help to identify where exploitation is occurring and, as a result, prompt the scrutiny other sectors already receive.

For as long as domestic workers are neither seen nor heard, exploitation is likely to continue unchecked. Governments and campaigners could do more to tackle exploitation by looking beyond migration and trafficking, and by assessing the conditions of all domestic workers. At the same time, Triandafyllidou’s message to employers is clear: ‘If you confiscate their passport, if you don’t let the worker free in their free time, this is a crime. It is not in your discretion.’

Alexandra Ricard-Guay is Principle Researcher on the DemandAt project at the Robert Schuman Centre’s Global Governance Programme.

Neil Howard is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre of the Robert Schuman Centre, which hosts his project ‘The Anti-Politics of Anti-trafficking: A Comparative Study of Anti-trafficking Policy and Practice in Benin and Italy’

Anna Triandafyllidou is Robert Schuman Chair Professor and  Global Governance Programme Research Area Director on Cultural Pluralism at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

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