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Standing up for the Rights of Domestic Workers on International Migrants Day

Selene Kaye,
Director, Liberty Division,
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December 18, 2008

Remember the Long Island millionaire couple convicted of enslaving two domestic workers they had brought to the U.S. from Indonesia? Although this story got much more media attention than other similar occurrences, it is far from an isolated event.

An estimated 100 million women, mostly from the world’s lesser-developed countries, leave their homes each year and migrate abroad in the hopes of finding a better life. Many of these female migrants turn to domestic work as a means of supporting themselves and their families back home. Unfortunately, language barriers, immigration status, isolation in the home, lack of education, and gender make these women extremely vulnerable and a serious pattern of exploitation and abuse of migrant domestic workers exists around the world. From Southeast Asia to the Middle East, South America to the United States, female domestic workers are routinely trafficked and subjected to conditions of forced labor and servitude.

Among the most vulnerable migrant domestic workers are those employed by diplomats, who enslave, exploit, and abuse domestic workers – and often get away with it because they have diplomatic immunity. Diplomats’ homes (to which domestic workers are often confined) are off-limits to U.S. law enforcement and special visa arrangements give diplomats a great deal of power over workers’ ability to remain in this country.

Last week, Congress took an important step forward in addressing this issue when it passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which includes specific protections for domestic workers brought to the U.S. by foreign diplomats. However, as long as diplomats remain immune to criminal and civil liability, exploitation and abuse will continue and victims will have little recourse.

In honor of International Migrants Day, we urge the U.S. government to implement the TVPRA provisions and to do more to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants by taking steps to sign and ratify the Migrant Worker Convention.

To read profiles of domestic workers who have come forward and to learn more about the ACLU’s work on this issue, check out: