Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, Side event "Migrant domestic workers: ensuring human rights and making decent work a reality"

3 October 2013

What are the main challenges and the priorities for action to ensure human rights and make decent work a reality for this category of workers? and more specifically: On the eve of the High-level Dialogue on Migration and development and in view of the post 2015 development agenda discussion, what are the initiatives being taken by the UN, including in the field of standard setting and monitoring , to influence the policy debate on the rights and protection of migrant domestic workers at the international level and promote policy reform at national level?

Millions of domestic workers around the world are vulnerable to serious violations of their human rights. Most are women and many are migrants.

Hidden away in private households, many are exposed to sexual and gender based violence and forced confinement, unable to freely meet their friends, or to practice their religion. They can be forced to live in substandard accommodation such as hallways and closets where they have little privacy, and sometimes are not allowed to access even basic healthcare. In some countries they are subject to invasive medical tests and can be fired if they become pregnant and are not permitted to marry.

Migrant domestic workers can be at risk of arbitrary or prolonged detention, particularly if they lose their documents while fleeing abuse or are convicted on spurious charges of theft, adultery, or "witchcraft”. In addition, domestic workers (migrant or not) can, in law and practice, are often excluded from access to the rights and protections enjoyed by other categories of workers.

These victims of human rights abuses are not distant. Amongst us expatriates here in this room, I would venture to say that many of us have had first-hand encounters of migrant domestic workers whose rights are violated. We must have zero tolerance for this. When I served as Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, the ministry recalled an Ambassador upon finding out that he had mistreated his domestic staff.

In 2010, the Committee on Migrant Workers issued its first General Comment on migrant domestic workers, in which it noted that the trend over the past decades has been a growing prevalence of migrants amongst domestic workers.

The General Comment makes a number of pertinent recommendations for actions to be taken by States and other stakeholders to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers; including

  • the issuance of standard employment contracts,
  • the need for regulation of recruiting agencies,
  • the inclusion of domestic work within national labour legislation, and
  • ensuring that migrant domestic workers have access to justice and remedies in case of violations.

Also relevant is General Recommendation No. 26 from 2008 on Women Migrant Workers of the CEDAW Committee, which recognizes that while migration presents new opportunities for women and may be a means for their economic empowerment through wider participation, it may also place their human rights and security at risk – with them vulnerable to physical and sexual assault, food and sleep deprivation and cruelty by their employers. Forced seclusion can present an insurmountable barrier to seeking and obtaining help.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is a partner to the global action project on migrant domestic workers with the ILO and UN Women. Specifically, OHCHR is seeking to focus on the plight of the significant numbers of migrant domestic workers in an irregular situation around the world. In 2010, under the Chair of OHCHR, the Global Migration Group (GMG) expressed its deep concern about the human rights of international migrants in an irregular situation around the globe.

In the context of the new post-2015 development agenda, we must be clear that migrants cannot be seen merely as instruments for the development of others, or conduits for the transfer of financial remittances. As we see in the case of many millions of migrant domestic workers, this money is often earned at a high personal and social cost. Migrant domestic workers must not be left behind in this new agenda.

We must give a voice to the voiceless. Over the next months and years, OHCHR will further study the situation and human rights of such migrant domestic workers, seeking also to help them raise their voice and to participate in decision-making that affects them. We should remember that protecting the rights of all migrant domestic workers does not mean making them silent and passive victims. Instead we should celebrate their strength and empowerment, reminding ourselves that as human beings and rights-holders they are entitled, without exception, to all fundamental human rights.