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Nisha Varia Headshot

The Hidden Victims of Human Trafficking

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Being forced into domestic servitude is one of the most common forms of human trafficking. Yet it remains one of the most invisible, including meager media coverage and law enforcement efforts. On June 27, the US State Department released its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, an annual ranking of how well -- or how badly -- countries around the world are doing to fight modern forms of slavery. The report is a sobering litany of horrific abuses, including against domestic workers, and the faltering efforts of many governments to stop these crimes.

I have spent several years trying to raise the profile of domestic workers' rights in Asia and the Middle East. While migrant domestic workers can have kind employers and good work experiences, I have interviewed hundreds of women who have endured hellishly long working hours without rest, been forced to work months or years without pay, were starved, beaten, or burned with hot irons, or suffered routine humiliation and were locked up in the homes where they worked.

A landmark treaty adopted less than two weeks ago may help to change that, however. On June 16, members of the International Labor Organization (ILO), including governments, trade unions, and employers' groups from around the world, created the first legally binding global labor standards for domestic work, requiring the same types of labor protections for domestic workers that other workers get. This treaty makes huge strides in recognizing the valuable services provided by nannies and housecleaners, and establishing the legal measures required to prevent labor exploitation and trafficking into domestic servitude.

Many of the worst offenders in this year's TIP report are not a big surprise. They include countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon where it's common for households to employ immigrant women as live-in nannies and housekeepers but where these workers are left out of coverage by labor laws and basic protections such as freedom to leave the workplace on days off. Should they even get a day off. The countries that send these workers are not far behind in the rankings, including Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. They have yet to effectively rein in the middlemen who recruit women from villages, deceive them about the conditions of work abroad, and extract huge recruitment fees that leave them indebted.

All of these countries, despite early opposition from some of them, voted in favor of the new ILO convention on domestic work. The treaty tackles areas where weak government action has often opened up the door to abuse, such as exempting domestic workers from child labor laws, a hands-off approach to responding to workplace violence in private homes, inadequate regulation of live-in domestic work, and poor monitoring of recruitment agencies.

There is a long road from adopting such standards to integrating them into national laws and enforcing them on the ground. But the very recognition of domestic workers as "workers" protected by labor laws -- rather than helpers, servants, or second-class "members of the family" -- narrows the space for abuse by heightening visibility, access to legal remedies, and shifts in attitudes.

Countries looking for concrete ways to tackle the scourge of human trafficking should quickly sign on to the ILO convention on domestic work and make the necessary reforms to be in compliance. Those that do might avoid the embarrassment of being highlighted again in next year's TIP report as a country that has allowed modern-day slavery to flourish in its backyard.