Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Nisha Varia interviewed hundreds of domestic workers for her report 'Swept Under the Rug, Abuses against Domestic Workers Around the World'.
Here are some of her findings:
Q: Which countries are the main magnets for domestic workers?
A: Internationally, many women migrate from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India to work in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Lebanon.
Q: Will the boom continue?
A: It's very likely that demand will continue to rise. Women are increasingly entering the labour force, yet they still bear most of the burden of cooking and cleaning. Without a shift in gender roles and more government support for family-friendly workplace policies and subsidised childcare, many households will continue to hire domestic workers to provide essential cleaning and care giving services.
Q: At what age do domestic workers start working?
A: Our studies found those as young as five years old. While there is no precise data, many girls start working as teenagers. Migrant domestic workers may be slightly older – some are 16 or 17, many are in their 20s and 30s.
Q: Why do they take up the work?
A: Economic necessity, a lack of other alternatives, and hopes for a better life.
Q: What hours might they typically work?
A: Often they work 14-18 hours per day, seven days a week – this may vary by employer.
Q: And what variety of work do they do?
A: Caring for children, the sick, or elderly; cleaning, washing clothes; cooking; gardening; serving guests; ironing; or all of these at once. In many cases, they may also be required to assist with their employer's business activities, to massage them, to wash their cars, or to clean multiple houses.
Q: How much do wages vary – and why?
A: Many employers and labour agents determine wages based on nationality rather than skills and experience. A Filipina domestic worker in Singapore might have a starting salary of S$350, while an Indonesian counterpart starts at S$280. But better pay does not guarantee better conditions. The power differential between employers and workers, in combination with heavy debts and inadequate legal protections, leaves workers at risk of abuse.
Q: Human Rights Watch says domestic workers are some of the most exploited and abused workers in the world. Why is this?
A: The long list of abuses committed by employers and labour agents includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; food deprivation; forced confinement in the workplace; non-payment of wages; and excessively long working hours with no rest days.
Q: Which countries have the best legal protections?
A: Hong Kong is a model because it extends equal protection to domestic workers under its main labour laws. Most countries exclude them from standard protections such as a minimum wage, a weekly day off, paid leave and maternity benefits.