Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Indenture of Migrant Domestic Workers

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Indenture of Migrant Domestic Workers

Article excerpt

Introduction

According to the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO), domestic work refers to "work performed in or for a household or households" (2011). Domestic workers include housecleaners, elderly caregivers, and nannies. In 1983, Rachel Epstein, an independent scholar reflecting on domestic workers in Canada, observed: "Paid domestic labor is not seen as 'real' work, nor are the people who do it seen as 'real' workers" (223). It has been more than thirty years since Epstein's observation, raising the question of whether a cultural shift in the view of paid domestic work as real labor has taken place not just in Canada but in other countries as well, particularly those with official recruitment programs for migrant domestic workers. These include Gulf Cooperative Council member states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (Sabban 2012); Denmark (Stenum 2011); Israel (Liebelt 2011); and various destinations in Asia including Singapore (Paul 2011), Taiwan (Lan 2006; 2007), Malaysia (Chin 1998), and Hong Kong (Constable 2007).

Suggesting a cultural shift toward the view of domestic work as "real work" is the 2011 approval of the International Labour Organization Convention 189, otherwise known as the Domestic Workers Convention, which went into effect in 2012. This convention led to many countries enacting legal reforms for the greater protection of domestic workers: for instance, the mandatory weekly day off instituted in the migrant destination countries of Singapore and Lebanon (Human Rights Watch 2013). Despite the positive effects of this convention, we still see limits in the recognition of paid domestic work as real work. In most destinations, migrant domestic workers are without the ability to participate freely in the labor market, whether it is to change jobs or employers. This constraint emerges from their liminal status of being legally "at sea," caught outside the juridical protection of both sending and receiving states.

There are an estimated fifty-three million domestic workers worldwide, the vast majority ofwhom-approximately 80 percent-are women and a substantial number of which are migrant workers (ILO 2013). As workers, they are without occupational or physical mobility. In most destinations across the globe, domestic workers must not only live with their employers but often cannot easily change employers, leading the geographer Rachel Silvey and her colleagues (2007) to observe that the domestic workers' movement constitutes a kind of "spatial entrapment" from the confines of their home in the sending country to the confines of their employer's home in the receiving country. The indentured citizenship of domestic workers is illustrated by the cases of Canada, which requires two years of continuous live-in employment with one family to qualify for permanent residency (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005; Pratt 2012); Denmark, which permits domestic workers in its au pair program to change jobs only twice in two years (Stenum 2011); the UAE and other Gulf Cooperative Council nations, which require domestic workers to secure the permission of their employers before seeking new employment (Sabban 2012); and Singapore, where domestic workers must secure their employer's approval before they can seek other employment even after the completion of their contract.

This article examines the legal status of migrant domestic workers, a subject insufficiently addressed in the literature due to the greater focus on employer-employee relations and the daily work routine of domestic workers (Brown 2011; Constable 2007; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Lan 2006; Macdonald 2010; Rollins 1985; Romero 1992). This article illustrates a contradiction in the legal regimes shaping the conditions of domestic work. While the ILO Domestic Workers Convention indicates the recognition of domestic work as real work on a global level, regulations in key destinations of migrant domestic workers contradict the principles of this convention. …

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