How a simple signature can help stop people trafficking and worker abuse

Laws designed to protect domestic workers could also help those trafficked from other countries. Flickr/Kara Allyson

Domestic workers now have greater protection from exploitative employers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted a convention which regulates working hours and prevents violence in the workplace. But it could also help in the fight against people trafficking.

The Domestic Workers Convention is an international treaty open to signature by all 183 ILO member states, recognises the potential for exploitation and abuse inherent in the often hidden nature of domestic work.

The Convention requires states that accept the Convention to “take measures to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers” and to “take measures to ensure that domestic workers enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.” It sets out to help those engaged in any type of work in the home including cooks, to cleaners and carers.

Most of the provisions provide general employment rights, such as minimum hours of rest and guarantees against discrimination. But it could have a wider application.

People trafficking in domestic service

It has become increasingly clear that people trafficking not only feeds into the sex industry, but also into forced labour, including in domestic service.

In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights found that France had violated the rights of a teenaged girl from Togo who had been brought into France under false pretences and forced to work as a domestic servant and child carer.

The court found that she had been held in a state of servitude, and that France was obliged to have effective criminal laws to punish the people who had exploited her.

Closer to home, a Queensland couple were jailed in 2010 under section 270.3 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code for using and possessing a slave, as a result of exploiting a domestic worker.

They had brought a woman from the Philippines to Australia by means of a sham marriage to another man. They required the woman to work in their shop during the day and in their house at night. While sexual abuse was also a factor in this case, the main form of exploitation experienced by the victim was forced domestic labour.

Trafficking to Australia

Accepting the Domestic Workers Convention could lead to the introduction of measures that might prevent people from being trafficked or protect them once they had been trafficked to Australia.

One method used by traffickers is to deceive potential victims about the nature and conditions of the work to be performed.

The Convention requires that where people are recruited in one country for work in another, they must receive a written job offer or contract of employment that is enforceable in the country where the work is performed.

The Convention also requires states to regulate employment agencies, to protect against abusive practices.

In addition, the Convention asks states to take measures to ensure that domestic workers can keep their travel and identity documents in their possession. Confiscation of passports is a frequent method of controlling trafficking victims once they arrive in their destination country.

Sign up to prevent abuse

The International Labour Conference also adopted a Recommendation to accompany the Domestic Workers Convention.

Recommendations do not impose binding obligations on states but set out guidance on how Conventions should be implemented in national legal systems.

The Recommendation adopted on 16th June includes suggested measures for protecting migrant domestic workers including legal protection against trafficking.

ILO Conventions, as international treaties, only become binding on states that sign up to them.

For the Domestic Workers Convention to contribute to the fight against people trafficking, Australia and many other states will have to sign the treaty and commit to making it effective in their law and practice.

Ensuring that people recruited to work in Australian homes have clear and understandable employment contracts and do not have their passports confiscated upon arrival could reduce the number of people trafficked for domestic work or at least allow them to escape situations of abuse as quickly as possible.