National Consumers League

Around the world 15.5 million children are trapped in domestic servitude

 By Sharon L. Fawcett, CLC Contributing Writer “I clean the floor many times in a day. When it is not well done, my employer throws the dirty water at my face.” 

This is how a girl from Togo describes her experience with child labor to Anti-Slavery International (ASI) researchers. She is a child domestic worker, enduring her employer’s abuse. The International Labour Organization estimates that 15.5 million children around the world are involved in domestic work in a home other than their own; 10.5 million of these children are involved in child labor as they are either under the legal minimum working age, or employed in hazardous conditions or conditions akin to slavery. In 2008, 61 percent of children in domestic labor were between 5 and 14 years of age; one-third were under age 12.73 percent of children engaged in domestic work are girls.

Child domestic labor is one of the most widespread and exploitative forms of child labor in the world. Child domestic workers help with the day-to-day tasks of running a household. These may include cooking, cleaning, caring for children or the elderly, gardening, running errands, and other tasks, as well as selling goods in the marketplace and on the street. These children may live with their employers, they may receive financial remuneration for their work, or “in kind” payment like food and housing. The hours are long, and many child domestic workers report that they are always on-call.

The reasons children end up in domestic labor vary by country and region, but poverty is usually a major factor. Child domestic workers are often overlooked in attempts to protect child workers, partly because of the notion that domestic work is a “safe” form of employment. However, because these children work inside private homes, they are especially isolated and at risk for abuse. According to the ILO, three-quarters of all children in domestic child labor perform hazardous work. This includes children working at least 43 hours per week, working at night, and being exposed to physical or sexual abuse.

The ILO reports that significant numbers of child domestic workers are victims of trafficking, debt bondage, or servitude. Approximately 225,000 of these children work in Haiti’s restavek system, trapped in what amounts to forced labor and slavery. From the French words rester avec (“to stay with”), restavek children, usually girls, from poor rural backgrounds are given or sold by their parents to work as domestic servants for other families.

ASI and Free the Slaves (FTS) report that restavek children are treated as sub-human, and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation as well as physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. A similar form of servitude takes place in Nepal where, for more than half a century, daughters of lower-caste, Tharu, have been sold or given to those of upper-castes as a means of debt repayment by their families. These young girls are known as kamlari.

In spite of Nepal’s government officially banning bonded labor in 2000 and its Supreme Court making the kamlari practice illegal in 2006, at least 500 girls are still trapped in domestic slavery, according to Man Bahadur Chhetri from the Kamlari Abolition Project. The suicide by self-immolation of 12-year-old kamlari Srijana Chaudhary, this year, highlighted the dire situation of kamlari girls. Yet another form of child domestic servitude is found in Niger, where girls born into slavery can be sold to wealthy men as “fifth wives” or wahayu, a practice in which they become sexual and domestic slaves. Child domestic labor violates the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which all countries that have ratified it are bound.

The United States, Somalia, and newly constituted South Sudan are the only UN member nations that have not ratified the CRC. (To learn what children’s rights are violated by child domestic labor, see table “Child Domestic Work and Children’s Rights.”) Child domestic labor also violates the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (C182) and Minimum Age Convention (C138). In many cases it may violate the UN Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons. 

In 2011, the International Labour Conference adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (C189). C189 gives domestic workers, in states that ratify the convention, the same protections that other workers are entitled to. The convention also contains specific provisions to protect children from child labor in domestic work, ensuring that those of legal age to work can do so in decent conditions, without jeopardizing their education. The entry into force of ILO C189 on September 5, 2013 is a major step towards acknowledging the rights of domestic workers and protecting child domestic workers. However, as Kali Yuan of The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas points out, the standards in C189 must be translated into local context, changing norms and attitudes at the grassroots level. The same is true for other relevant conventions, so that children who wish to perform domestic work—and are of legal working age—can do so in conditions that are fair, safe, and respect their dignity. 

For more on what some CLC members are doing in this sector see: Report: Human Rights Watch (2012), Lonely Servitude: Child Domestic Labor in Morocco. Information about the work of Free the Slaves, and partners, to end domestic slavery in HaitiIndia, and Nepal. Information about the work of UNICEF, and partners, to help child domestic workers in Haiti regain their rights.