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Humiliation, abuse and maltreatment – the life of a domestic worker

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Many of the 2.5 million domestic workers in the EU risk being exploited, unaware of their rights and unprotected by a lack of inspections monitoring how they are being treated, finds a new European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights paper. It also suggests ways to help combat exploitation.

The Out of sight: migrant women exploited in domestic work paper outlines some of the dire conditions domestic workers from both the EU and beyond face.

These include suffering abuse and harassment from employers with many working in fear of maltreatment, of losing their job or of deportation. Often they lack privacy having to share rooms with the people they look after. They are frequently poorly paid and have to work up to 18 hours a day with short breaks and little chance of days off.

The paper also explores how exploitation can happen. For example, often work permits are tied to a particular employer. This creates dependency which can be abused, especially when they also live at work. Sometimes employers also excessively control and monitor their workers, not letting them talk to others outside of work; some even withhold their workers’ passports.

Another reason is the lack of inspections. This is sometimes because of the legal and practical challenges of inspecting private homes which may be not considered workplaces in some countries. As a result victims often have limited opportunities to complain.

Poor access to victim support networks and low rights awareness compound the problem.

To help minimise the risk of exploitation, Member States should find ways to reduce dependency on a single employer. This could be through granting domestic workers the right to switch employers during the term of their visa.

They should also revise national laws to grant domestic workers better working conditions, stronger protection and ensure labour inspections extend to domestic work. Providing financial benefits such as tax credits, for employers who offer formal terms and conditions to domestic workers, is one example that is already been used in some Member States.

In addition, the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention provides a framework for decent working conditions. However, seven years after it was adopted in June 2011, only six EU Member States - Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Portugal - have ratified it. More Member States should do so to allow domestic workers enjoy their right to fair working conditions.

Member States should also ensure targeted support, in line with the EU’s Victims’ Rights Directive, is available, accessible and meets the needs of domestic workers who have been exploited. They should also carry out outreach campaigns to inform workers of working conditions and their rights so they clearly understand their terms of employment.

They should also strive for a climate of zero tolerance towards exploitation among the general public. This should include raising awareness about the vital role domestic workers play in supporting and enabling society to balance the demands of today’s world.

The findings provide a snapshot of the experiences of 51 exploited migrant women who were employed as domestic workers in the EU. It is the first of a series of papers that captures the views and experiences of victims of labour exploitation.

It builds on earlier FRA work that spoke to professionals about severe labour exploitation.