Free the maids
A new treaty aims to stop abuse
Jun 23rd 2011 | from the print edition
WITHOUT them many an economy would grind to a halt: the global army of between 50m and 100m domestic workers, most of them women and children. Yet tucked away in kitchens and nurseries, mainly in the Middle East and Asia, their wages often go unpaid, they are rarely granted any time off, and many face physical and sexual abuse.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) hopes to change all this with a new treaty adopted on June 16th at its annual conference. The Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers has been three years in the making. Its goal is to limit working hours, guarantee weekly days off, ensure a minimum wage and protect domestic workers from violent employers.
Only a few delegates—government officials as well as national representatives of employers and workers—voted against (Swaziland and a couple of employer groups, including the Confederation of British Industry), but there were some notable abstentions. Predictably, they included Malaysia. A series of abuse cases led Indonesia to ban its citizens from going to work there as maids from 2009 until May this year. More surprisingly, the British government, too, preferred not to vote either way. It said the treaty would be too onerous, particularly the parts regulating working hours and health and safety.
In contrast, the six wealthy monarchies of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), where abuse of domestic workers is common, had a change of heart. Initially, they opposed the convention, arguing that it was not only impractical, but unnecessary: workers, they said, were treated like members of the families who employed them—though ask Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, a maid whose Saudi employer stabbed, beat and burned her. This year the GCC shifted its position and even suggested several changes that strengthened the treaty.
相反，虐仆事件屡见不鲜的6个富裕的海湾合作理事会君主国却改变了立场。一开始他们反对这项协定，坚持认为这项协定不仅不切实际，而且没有必要：他们声称雇主都已经将仆人当作自家人对待了 — 不过最好还是问问穆斯塔法，她曾被沙特雇主用刺，打和烫的手段虐待过。今年海湾合作理事会国家改变了立场，还为完善条约提出了一些更改的建议。
The convention now has to be ratified by governments, which is likely to take several years. Some countries may never follow through, despite having voted for the treaty. In the meantime, abuses continue, although things have recently improved. In the Middle East several countries are drafting legislation about domestic workers and are looking to the convention for guidance. Others now have hotlines for domestic workers to report abuse.
Yet the most encouraging local change is the emergence of many Facebook groups and blogs, such as Migrant Rights, that talk about abuse. They show that younger people in the Middle East and Asia are increasingly embarrassed about the exploitation of expatriate workers in their countries. That may do as much as any treaty to improve the plight of domestic workers.