Domestic work - modern day slavery?

children washing clothes in buckets

Child domestic workers in Benin. Life for child domestic workers can be very isolating. They live in the families' homes but remain outsiders. © ESAM/Anti-Slavery International

Worldwide, most domestic workers are women and girls, although in some countries a significant number of men and boys are domestic workers. Some domestic workers migrate from their home country to work abroad, others migrate within their own country, often from the rural areas to the cities, and some work in their home communities.

Not all domestic work is slavery; some workers do have adequate pay, holiday and time off for ill health. Their work is valued by the employer and they are not subject to any form of abuse.

Unsuitable working conditions

However, for some domestic workers, their conditions amount to slavery - where employers have forbidden them from leaving the home; not paid them their wages, used violence or threats of violence, withheld their passports; or deceived them about their rights in order to compel them to work.

According to international laws set out by the United Nations, slavery exists when a person is:

  • forced to work through mental or physical threat;
  • owned or controlled by an 'employer', through mental or physical abuse, threatened or actual;
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property'; or
  • physically constrained or without freedom of movement.

Hidden from society

In many countries, domestic workers are not considered as workers but rather as providing informal 'help' and thus have no legal employment rights.

Even in countries where domestic work is covered by labour laws, workers are not often afforded their rights in practice. Working behind the closed doors of private homes, workers are hidden from society and there are no workplace inspections, as are carried out elsewhere. This enables their abuse to take place unnoticed.