Globally, domestic workers are among the most marginalised and exploited workers on the planet, despite their economic and social value to households and society in general. The ILO estimates domestic workers typically earn less than half of the average wages of all other workers in the labour market – and sometimes no more than about 20 per cent of average wages.5 The situation is further exacerbated for migrant domestic workers, some of whom may have been recruited through intermediaries and would have had little or no interaction with their intended employer before commencing work, or who may face language barriers in the workplace.6 There are a number of recent cases around the world revealing the severe conditions migrant domestic workers suffer and a growing body of evidence of cases within Australia.
Within Australia, economic growth and an increase in women’s participation in the workforce is driving demand for home-help services. This is coupled by an international increase in the migration of women largely from developing countries to seek overseas employment as maids, cleaners, nannies, and carers. While there is potentially a match to be made between this supply of and demand for home-help, without a considered policy framework in place, unfortunately the result tends to be that migrant women domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to extreme forms of exploitation, including human trafficking, forced labour, and physical and sexual abuse.
According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection statistics, there are approximately 400 migrant domestic workers at any given time, though figures from the Department’s Annual Report suggest this number may be rising.8 However, our experience suggests that migrants from other visa categories, such as working holiday visas and student visas, are also working as domestic workers. Indeed, The Salvation Army has assisted victims on a variety of visa categories including the temporary skilled migrant (subclass 457) visa, visitor (subclass 600) and partner (subclass 800) visas, and the former sport (subclass 421) visa.9
Since 2007, The Salvation Army in Sydney has assisted 20 migrant domestic workers who have been subjected to degrading and humiliating conditions. These women reported experiencing deprivation of food, withholding of identity documents, physical abuse, threats, and intimidation. Our clients have withstood verbal humiliation and abuse, sexual harassment and assault, denial of medical care, control of their movement and communications with other people, invasion of privacy, excessive work, and little pay or no pay at all.
Whilst the number of confirmed cases remain low, absence of concerted outreach and education efforts, coupled with common barriers to help seeking, make it highly likely that these situations are underreported. It is our experience that, as more attention is drawn to the issue, more cases will be identified.
Case Study: Sandra
“I spent three years in slavery in Sydney. I knew the people who brought me here. I worked for them in my country. They were people I trusted. They promised me a paid job as their housekeeper, they will help me to get permanent residency and that later I can bring my children. I had no reason to doubt them and I wanted to improve my life and the lives of my children. They organised my visa and paid for my plane ticket. I lived in Sydney with the man, his wife and two sons. They told me to do all the housework and I started doing this work the day after I arrived. After 2 weeks they took my passport and said it was applying for permanent residence so I gave it to them. I think they would help me. I worked 7 days a week from 7 in the morning till 10 at night. I had no breaks; I did all the housework, gardening and took care of the dogs and the swimming pool. I worked very hard. They used to threaten me and swear at me. I had set times I could eat and could only eat certain things. For 3 years of work I was never paid, not one dollar.
I had severe headaches and bloody noses but was not taken to a doctor. They forced me to stop practicing my religion. I couldn’t contact my family and I couldn’t leave. I wouldn’t know where to go. They held not only my passport, but the power and control of my life. I had no choices, no freedom.”