Slavery is alive and well in our own backyard
On the northern tip of Queensland, a young woman from the Philippines worked up to 18 hours a day for a married couple. She looked after their three small children, cleaned their house at night, and worked in their store in the day.
The woman, known in court as Ms G, was repeatedly raped by the husband, threatened, abused and exploited. After numerous appeals, in February 2010 the husband was jailed for slavery offences. The wife was also convicted, although she has since lodged another appeal.
These workers are Jills of all trades: cooking, cleaning, caring for kids, the elderly and the sick. Domestic workers – nannies, maids, au pairs, “the help” - make the lives of Australian families easier. But sometimes the lives of these workers are unbearably hard.
Shut off from the outside world in quiet family homes, domestic workers are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and in the worst cases, slavery. The migrant women (and they are almost always women) who leave family and friends to travel to Australia to work in private houses or embassies are especially at risk.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) provides some jarring facts about these “overworked, underpaid and unprotected” workers.
A conservative estimate places the number of domestic workers worldwide at around 53 million but experts acknowledge the real figure could be double that. Of these workers, around 83 per cent are women or girls and many are migrant workers.
If you think exploitation of domestic workers doesn’t happen in Australia, think again.
In Australia we are in dire need of in-depth research on the situation of domestic workers and their particular vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. A landmark new international agreement on protecting the rights of domestic workers may spur us into action.
The International Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted by the ILO in June this year, seeks to safeguard workers against violent employers, ensure they are paid for the work they have done, make sure they get rest days, and don’t suffer sexual harassment or assault.
Historically, cleaning, cooking, and caring have been seen as “women’s work”, of lesser value than banking or building. As a result, we tend not to see domestic workers as real workers doing important work with real rights and responsibilities.
This is why the ILO has heralded the new convention as a step forward for gender equality, explaining: “the mere fact of regulating this form of work is an acknowledgment of the crucial social and economic contribution of care work”.
But symbols aren’t enough. What domestic workers need now is action.
Whether an international treaty can change the lives of workers in Australia depends on the actions of Australian politicians. The signs are promising. Australia was one of four countries spearheading to the negotiation of the ILO convention.
If Australia is considering signing up to the Convention, one of the first steps it will take is to audit Australian laws to see if they meet the new international standards. This will be an opportunity to find out more about the lives of domestic workers in private homes and embassies, consider whether existing visa options are adequate or open to abuse, and strike up a conversation about how we value domestic work.
Exploitation that happens behind closed doors on suburban streets is hard to expose but the ILO offers some sensible suggestions: crackdown on dubious recruiting agencies, invest in community campaigns to ensure workers have access to information about their rights at work, and a contract that complies with the same basic legal protections afforded to local workers.
Migrant workers who leave their families to work in the homes of strangers are seeking a better life. Their employers ultimately want the same thing - better quality of life. Help around the house buys free time and choice: the choice to pursue a promotion, to watch the kids play sport, or to switch off and relax.
As modern families juggle work and family and our population continues to age, domestic workers will continue to be a vital part of the care economy. But we need to be confident, Australian laws offer real protection to these vulnerable workers.
Work is bound up with self-worth. All workers should have the security of knowing their basic rights are protected by law, not dependent on the whim of their employer. Above all, we must ensure that the choices one person enjoys do not come at the cost of the freedom of another.
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