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Statement by Ms. Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on conteporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences at the 39th session of the Human Rights Council

10 September 2018

Mr President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to address the Human Rights Council as the second Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences.

As the Global Slavery Index 2018 evidences, slavery continues to be a reality for millions of men, women and children all over the world. Yet, forced labour, servitude, bonded labour, sexual slavery, servile forms of marriage and traditional slavery are often invisible and therefore, the scale of contemporary forms of slavery is commonly underestimated.
This also applies to domestic servitude which is commonly hidden to the outside world, as it happens behind closed doors. My report focusing on the impact of slavery and servitude on marginalized migrant women workers in the global domestic economy aims at giving visibility to an often neglected subject and in this way, to echo the voices of the voiceless. In my report, I conclude that policies are needed that tackle discrimination while also helping to balance the legitimate concerns of both employers and workers in order to effectively prevent human rights violations including servitude in the domestic sector.

A sustainable domestic work economy should ensure access to justice, effective enforcement and remedies in the case of exploitation and abuse, while also addressing issues of prejudice against migrants through advocacy. I encourage all States to implement my recommendations formulated in the report which aim at giving practical guidance to States on how to effectively prevent and address domestic servitude of women migrants.

Mr President,

Regarding country visits, I welcome the invitation extended by the Government of Italy to undertake an official visit which will take place from 3 to 12 October 2018. The Government of Togo has equally accepted an official visit which has been scheduled for December this year.

I wish to also take this opportunity to thank the Government of Paraguay for their collaboration before and during the visit which took place in July 2017. I will present the country visit report at the end of this statement.

Mr. President and distinguished delegates

I will now turn to my thematic study on the impact of slavery and servitude on marginalized migrant women workers in the global domestic economy.

Care and domestic work are necessary for the wellbeing of households and yet, mainly performed by women, our global society disregards the value of this work, resulting in women being exploited in servitude and subjected to other slavery like conditions. The human rights violations of domestic workers, particularly of migrant workers in domestic servitude, remains largely invisible, as it is confined to the private sphere. The increase in global migration for domestic work is directly related to increasing globalization, macroeconomic policies which reinforce inequality and poverty, climate change and demographic changes. Yet this is a critical area for policy changes because the manner in which care and domestic work are carried out is crucial to the future of decent work.

Not all migrant domestic workers face working and living conditions which amount to servitude. Owing to the informality of domestic work, there is insufficient data on migrant women in domestic servitude. However, domestic workers face some of the poorest working conditions across the care economy and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Their working conditions are the result of a set of labour market, migration and care policies, or the lack thereof. Households may find it tempting to resort to the cheapest and easiest solutions for care on the market, which are commonly domestic workers.

 Frequently driven by poverty, domestic workers, including migrants, often find themselves forced to accept working and living conditions that violate their fundamental human rights. On that basis, many migrant domestic workers are exposed to multiple types of abuse, such as physical and social isolation; restriction of movement; psychological, physical and sexual violence; intimidation and threats; retention of identity documents by the employer; withholding of wages; abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime. If one or more of these situations applies, the ILO considers it to constitute forced labour. If those indicators of forced labour are combined with a lack of choice and strong control over their personal freedom, which many employers exercise, domestic workers may find themselves trapped in servitude, or even slavery. Domestic workers who live in the homes of their employers are especially vulnerable in this regard.

A series of challenges have allowed servitude of women migrant domestic workers to persist:

Often, for example, domestic work is not considered as “real work” due to underlying social norms and discriminatory attitudes, particularly if migrant domestic workers are also members of marginalized communities such as indigenous or caste-affected groups or if the employers are from higher castes. Also, employers are often not seen as employers as they are private persons.

Secondly, international human rights law and international labour law are not understood as applying to domestic workers and therefore, the protection extended to this category of workers is limited. At the same time, the C189 – the Domestic Workers Convention of 2011 – has so far only been ratified by 25 States.

Mr. President,

I urge States to increase their efforts in addressing and preventing domestic servitude, as it constitutes an abysmal and degrading human rights abuse. To this end, States need to do better in identifying victims and potential victims of servitude by taking into consideration that migrants in vulnerable situations are always at a high risk of falling prey to traffickers and of becoming victims of contemporary forms of trafficking. Also, States need to improve victims’ access to justice by removing obstacles in this area and by ensuring that employers who are perpetrators are held accountable.

The promotion of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all as reflected in SDG Goal 8 directly contributes to the prevention of domestic servitude. Therefore, I call upon States to seize this opportunity and to fulfil this ambitious yet realizable goal and to also ensure decent work for migrants.

Countless households around the world rely on migrant domestic workers. This contribution to society should not only be acknowledged and valued but it is also time for States and private employment companies to protect, respect and fulfil the human rights of all migrant domestic workers, including of the most vulnerable ones.

In addressing domestic work from a human rights perspective, domestic servitude can be replaced with decent work and social justice, and a workplace created which is free of violence and harassment.

Mr. President and distinguished delegates,

Let me now provide you with an overview of my main conclusions and recommendations of my visit to Paraguay. During my eight day visit in July 2017, I noted a number of positive developments in the Government’s prevention and response to contemporary forms of slavery, for example regarding an improved compliance with labour standards. Also, a decrease in the prevalence of labour exploitation has been noted.

At the same time, however, too many children continue to be involved in child labour and in hazardous work. A survey conducted in 2015 found that in rural areas, more than 75 per cent of children between 5 and 17 years were engaged in one or more of the worst forms of child labour. The criadazgo, for example, is a practice whereby a child (usually a girl) from a poor rural household is sent to live with another family in an urban area with the objective of securing access to food and education. In the new household, the child undertakes domestic work for the receiving family which is normally not remunerated.

Although there has reportedly been a significant reduction in the number of children engaged in criadazgo, I was informed during my visit that there are still almost 47,000 children subjected to this practicein Paraguay. This deeply worries me, as under ILO Convention No. 182, criadazgo is considered to be one of the worst forms of child labour and in many cases, it constitutes a contemporary form of slavery. Child labour and child slavery deprive children of their childhood and dignity. Therefore, I call on the Government to increase its efforts in ending the practice of criadazgo by ensuring the rights of all children and by addressing poverty as one of its root causes. This effort is naturally linked to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular to target 8.7 on eradicating forced labour, ending modern slavery and human trafficking and securing the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour.

Lastly, I would like to refer to the situation of indigenous peoples who live in the Chaco region, a vast and mainly rural area. During my visit there, I received multiple reports according to which indigenous peoples are vulnerable to exploitation and to forced and bonded labour. Particularly in smaller employment sites and in remote areas, some indigenous peoples are reportedly subjected to exploitative labour practices. I call on the Government to take prompt measures to protect indigenous peoples in Paraguay from labour exploitation by ensuring decent work for all.

I remain at the disposal of the Government of Paraguay to assist in the effective implementation of my recommendations.

Mr. President and distinguished delegates,

The existence of contemporary forms of slavery is a large and pervasive atrocity which requires a strong, global response. Together, we must find solutions to the multiple complex factors that enable slavery to persist in our times. I thank all those who have continued to support my mandate in addressing this issue.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to a fruitful dialogue with you.