Slavery is alive and going on in homes around the world, including in homes in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. Large numbers of domestic workers (AKA, in archaic terms, as “housemaids”), have little power or employment rights, and do most of their work behind the closed doors of people’s homes. Yet mainstream movies and TV programmes, from Downton Abbey to Devious Maids tend to present such jobs as being for caring and protective employers and/or as being powerful and glamorous.
An estimated 53 million people, mostly women, are employed as domestic workers in private households around the world.
While domestic workers are now considered crucial to the smooth running of national economies, as a workforce they remain one of the most vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and modern-day slavery.
Human rights campaigners have catalogued a litany of exploitation faced by domestic workers at the hands of their employers, including forced labour, rape, daily beatings and being forced to work long hours with no breaks.
According to the International Domestic Workers Federation, employers who exploit or underpay their domestic workers make $8bn (£5.1bn) a year in illegal profits.
Abusive, exploitative and dehumanising treatment occurs in non-Western countries. It also occurs in so-called liberal democracies:
Meanwhile, a survey of domestic workers in the US found that 25% were paid less than the minimum wage. A total of 10% said they weren’t paid anything at all.
In Australia, where an estimated 54,000 of Asia-Pacific’s 21 million-plus domestic workers are based, a Salvation Army report catalogued 16-hour days without breaks, non-payment of wages and physical violence. The study, published last year, concluded that private homes in Australia were becoming “prisons that people cannot leave”.
In the UK, 67% of domestic workers work seven days a week and 60% are not allowed out of the house alone, according to the NGO Kalayaan. The UK’s stance towards domestic workers was criticised when it became one of eight countries, including El Salvador and Sudan, not to vote in favour of a new International Labour Organistion (ILO) convention giving domestic workers the same legal protection afforded to other workers.
And it happens in New Zealand. Last September the Law Society of New Zealand reported on various forms of human trafficking of men and women to New Zealand who worked in conditions of slavery. This includes exploited Filipino workers in Christchurch,, women forced to be se workers in exploitative conditions and
foreign men – largely from Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – [who] are subjected to forced labour conditions aboard our foreign charter vessels in New Zealand waters. Alleged conditions include confiscation of passports, imposition of significant debts, physical violence, mental abuse, excessive hours of work and sexual abuse.4
There is less publicly available information about domestic slavery in New Zealand. It is something that slips far more easily under the radar than many of the above reported types of cases in NZ. However, there have been a handful of publicly reported cases.
In 2012 a businesswoman was put on trial for exploiting domestic workers in slave-like conditions:
Two Fijian women have described how for months they worked seven-day weeks for $40 in the home of a Wellington businesswoman who is charged with exploiting them.
“I was just like a slave to them. I did not feel free at all,” one of the women said in a written statement, included in court committal papers obtained by The Dominion Post.
She was told that, if she didn’t like her conditions, she could go to work at a strip club.
Her former boss faces 12 charges, including exploiting people not entitled to work in New Zealand by not paying the minimum wage or holiday allowances, providing false information to an immigration officer, and helping or procuring a breach of a visitor’s visa.
These not so devious maids live lives far different from those represented in large numners of mainstream movies and TV programmes.