Domestic servitude: invisible modern slaves

Could you recognise a case of domestic servitude?
Photo: SiV-Athens/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Flickr

Many migrant women reach Europe with the hope of a better life, only to be subjected to domestic servitude across the continent. While it is not as publicly recognised as sexual exploitation, domestic servitude can trap its victims for years and it is often harder to uncover.

What is domestic servitude?

Domestic servitude is part of labor trafficking, which is defined as: “the seemingly normal practice of live-in help that is used as cover for the exploitation and control of someone, usually from another country. It is a form of forced labor, but it also warrants its own category of slavery because of the unique contexts and challenges it presents,” according to the End Slavery Now campaign.

Women and girls are often the victims of this crime and since domestic work is not recognized as a regulated profession in many countries, these victims are excluded from labor laws. The private nature of domestic work also helps shield the perpetrators, especially when the victims are unable to leave the house.

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How widespread is domestic servitude in Europe?

Although domestic servitude in the Middle East and Southeast Asia has been making headlines and is considered by human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, to be a widespread problem, there are also many reported cases in Europe.

Domestic work is required to be regulated but in practice, this is not always the case. Often, the lines may be blurred as to what constitutes domestic servitude – after all, many migrants accept working in informal and exploitative conditions because their lack of documentation does not allow them to look for appropriate jobs.

Migrants working for the domestic sector are overwhelmingly female and poor working conditions are the norm, as  a 2009  publication by the International Labor Organization states: “Domestic and care work in private households is an expanding area of employment for immigrant women in many European countries.

“Domestic work is currently not perceived nor regulated as proper work. Labour standards granted to the category of these workers are often below the ones enjoyed by other categories of workers.”

However, domestic servitude entails specific characteristics that make it a separate crime from the average labor exploitation suffered by many migrant workers. In the case of domestic slavery, according to the human rights organisation Anti-Slavery International, “The pay is often very low, with wage payments frequently delayed. Some domestic workers may not be paid at all or only receive ‘payment in kind’ such as food or accommodation.”

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In addition, many of the victims are brought into Europe by the perpetrators themselves as hired help – which means the documentation of the victim depends on being employed by the perpetrator – or lured in with promising working conditions and pay. Affoué, an Ivory Coast victim of domestic servitude in France, is an example of these practices.

The perpetrators of domestic slavery often resort to violence and threats to ensure victims are kept silent. Victims may also feel helpless if they are unable to speak the language of the country where they are being enslaved. Past reports reveal foreign, wealthy families keeping domestic slaves for years, confiscating their documents and severely restricting their freedom. Diplomatic households are particularly risky, since they are supposedly inviolable according to international law.

Infamous cases in Britain such as the nanny who was granted refugee status after being beaten and sexually assaulted by her diplomat boss, or the domestic workers who sued their Saudi employers, helped bring the plight of domestic servants to light. The prevalence of these types of cases had previously lead the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to develop a handbook tackling the issue.

How can you help prevent or identify domestic slavery?

According to the UK’s College of Policing, there are several indicators which can help identify a victim of domestic servitude. The victims usually work for private residences or cleaning companies and many live with the family of their employer, although they are usually not granted the same rights as other residents, have no formal contract and often perceive themselves to be in debt to the employer.

Servants may be handed the household’s leftovers for food and seemingly not having any free time without the employer’s supervision, without appropriate accommodation and without having access to his or her documents when questioned, those are all alert signs.

General trafficking indicators, such as those listed by Hope for Justice, can also be useful in identifying victims of domestic servitude. These include limited access to medical care and restrained freedom of movement, malnourishment, fear of authorities and/or employers and symptoms of psychological or physical trauma  are usual signs exhibited by victims. These symptoms may include depression, anxiety, blackouts in the mental sphere and bruises, gastrointestinal problems, sleep deprivation in the physical sphere, among others.

GenderHuman Rights
Margarida Teixeira

Margarida Teixeira works for a women's rights organization in Lisbon, Portugal, that advocates for gender mainstreaming in Portuguese society and works on a variety of topics. She has previously worked for human rights and humanitarian NGOs in France and Croatia.
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