The Wretched Acts of Domestic Worker Abuse

Jul 04, 2011
*Special to asia!
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Some people think they have the carte blanche to treat foreign live-in help in barbaric ways. And sometimes the law lets them get away with it.

1042 Maids should demand for better working conditions, pay scale and skills training. (Photo credit: experianmaids)

Devi worked for a Saudi diplomat in Berlin. She began her day at seven and ended at midnight. She served the diplomat, his wife and their five children. She also suffered their beatings, punches included. Even the five-year-old son joined in the abuse.

In the 19 months she worked for them, Devi did not have a single day off. She slept on the floor with a thin sheet for cover. The whole time, she was paid just once, during the Muslim fasting month –150 euros in all.

This was the story reported by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Her lawyer tried to bring her case to the Berlin Labour Court, but it was thrown out. The judge who heard the case said the court had no jurisdiction. The diplomat enjoyed immunity from prosecution, as do all diplomats under an internationally recognised convention.

They want to create a legal precedent for diplomats to be prosecuted for human rights abuses.

Devi's lawyer, backed by German Institute for Human Rights, is prepared to bring the case up to Germany's highest court, or even the European Court of Human Rights. They want to create a legal precedent for diplomats to be prosecuted for human rights abuses.

Devi, by the way, is her pseudonym. The 30-year-old Indonesian, who remains unnamed by the story, has returned to her home village. She is still being owed thousands of euros in back pay – 32,000 euros, according to her lawyer.

Devi's story is one that is being played out in all parts of the world, where women from Third World countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are working as domestic help. Tales of long working hours, abuse by employers and non-payment of wages are not uncommon.

In the Philippines, the government takes a slightly more active role in protecting the rights of its nationals working overseas. Last month, the Malaya newspaper published an initial list of 76 countries deemed to be "safe havens" for overseas Filipino workers.

They had to fulfill one of the three following requirements:

1. The country has existing labour and social laws protecting the rights of workers.

2. The country is a signatory to and/or a ratifier of multilateral conventions, declarations or resolutions relating to the protection of workers.

3. The country has concluded a bilateral agreement or arrangement with the government on the protection of the rights of overseas foreign workers.

(See full list and report here.)


The report noted the absence of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from the list, both popular destination countries for Filipinos seeking work overseas.

A Filipino migrant worker rights group pointed out that of all the countries in the Middle East, only Oman and Israel made the list. He also made the following critique:

...none of the conditions include enforcement of protective laws or treaties, which is a major problem in the region. In none of the countries in the region are sponsors allowed to beat their workers, drive them to suicide, under-pay them, not pay them at all or confiscate their passports, and yet such practices are all too common due to lack of enforcement.

Therefore, we must look at the facts of the ground and not treaties, laws or bilateral agreements in order to determine whether countries can be regarded as 'safe'.



Also conspicuously missing from the list is Singapore, another popular destination of choice for Filipino migrant workers. A fierce debate has been going on in the wealthy city-state on the need to give foreign live-in domestic workers a day off every week.

One of the arguments against the proposition is that employers risk losing the “security bond” paid to the government, should the worker breach employment conditions during her day off.

Ignorant Singaporean employers believe falsely that their bond of S$5,000 will be forfeited, if the domestic worker gets pregnant, for instance. This fear leads them to restrict the social lives of their workers outside of work. (Singapore's Ministry of Manpower has recently issued a letter to the state-run newspaper to clarify that the deposit will not be forfeited in such cases.)

Another reason raised against a weekly rest day is the inconvenience it would present to the employers. Companies in Singapore should then really feel free to take advantage of this ridiculous argument, and oblige Singaporeans that do not give their domestic helpers rest days to work all seven days as well.

Decent working conditions for migrant domestic workers is clearly not something that is to be taken for granted. Abuse goes on, not only in the Middle East, but in what might be considered more progressive countries as well.

Last month the International Labour Organisation adopted a new convention on guidelines pertaining to the working conditions of domestic workers. 

It requires governments to “provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers, including for working hours, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, daily and weekly rest periods, social security, and maternity protection”.

Of 475 international government, worker and employer delegates who voted, 396 voted for the convention, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE which overcame their initial objection. There were 63 abstentions, including Singapore and the UK.

Regarded as a historic step to improve the working conditions of domestic workers, this will hopefully go far in upholding their rights. Unfortunately it may still leave those like Devi who work for employers shielded by diplomatic immunity out in the cold.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi