Public Prosecutor, Uganda
As the world responds to the global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, all economic sectors have adversely been impacted. This includes “the unregulated workplace” of the domestic workers, which mainly employs women. While women greatly contribute to development of the economy, little has been done to protect the female domestic workers, most of whom are migrants. They take care of their employer’s home while they go to perform their duties elsewhere. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most employers to work remotely at home - the workplace of women domestic workers. Just like other employers have been affected, migrant women domestic workers around the world are no exception.
These women workers are placed at the frontline of the battle of this pandemic through the provision of housekeeping, cleaning services, and care services for the sick, elderly, children, and people with disabilities, all of whom are very vulnerable to the virus and therefore must meet the sanitation demands. Despite the indispensable services they provide, women domestic workers are discriminated against, exposed to violence and their vulnerability has increased due to the poor working conditions in which they find themselves which requires immediate attention and protection.
As a containment measure to the pandemic, several business activities have been closed, but homes have not closed and it is business as usual. Children and parents have all been sent home and advised to isolate themselves. Policies such as social distancing and isolation are recommended. These policies negatively affect female domestic workers, thereby exacerbating the discriminatory tendencies. The pandemic has had significant economic impacts on domestic workers worldwide including extended working hours, loss of jobs, and failure to return to their home countries due to border closures, multiple labor violations such as unpaid leave, absence of sick leave, non-payment or low payment of wages, effects of school closures, early termination of contracts, limited access to health care, risk of losing their jobs and loss of working hours, among others. Despite the risks they are exposed to, women domestic workers continue working even when their health is in danger.
All employees have resorted to working from home and therefore domestic worker’s safety remains a cause of concern. Migrant domestic workers face unique challenges during the pandemic. Both live-in and live-out migrant women domestic worker’s employability and life is at stake and calls for attention of the human rights community. Live-out migrant women domestic workers work in several homes, interact with many people, and sometimes rely on public transport to travel to and from work, putting them at a high risk of contracting the virus. In some instances, their residence contracts have expired and have no means of payment. The questions to address are how safe is the home as a workplace, and how are domestic workers managing the crisis? While governments are catering for other employees, domestic workers too require protection and continued advocacy for their rights.
During this pandemic, it is important to pay attention to domestic workers’ labor and other related rights. While at their workplace, women domestic workers should be able to easily access timely, consistent, and accurate information about the main health problems currently pertaining to the virus at this critical time. This applies to situations where they are denied telephone communication and the languages in which such important information is distributed cannot be understood by them. For those wishing to return to their countries after layoffs, they remain stranded in their host countries without any means to support themselves, including a lack of access to information about the pandemic.
From the health perspective, a majority of female migrant domestic workers have no insurance coverage, no access to medical services, and some cannot access masks to protect themselves from infection. This lack of access to protective equipment may expose other family members to the virus. While they may be the least protected person in a home, their health is equal to the health of their employer because COVID–19 does not discriminate. Discriminatory policies, such as the proposal by Bahrain MP Masoumeh Abdel-Rahim requiring domestic workers to have a medical examination certificate confirming that they do not have the virus, are not practical at this time. Furthermore, domestic migrant workers affected by the virus are not covered by worker’s compensation. It is recommended that countries should ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families to provide global health equity and promote migrant worker’s health.
In a bid to control the spread of the virus, travel restrictions (bans and lockdown) as a pandemic intervention strategy in most countries are applied in a discriminatory manner against returning migrant female domestic workers. Laid off workers cannot get back to their countries of origin, and those that return home are welcomed with violence; they are quarantined in shelters under unfavorable conditions. Such actions are contrary to the Siracusa Principles and UN Human Rights Committee General comment 29 on states of emergency and freedom of movement which provide guidance on government responses that restrict human rights for reasons of public health or national security. States should consider the impact on marginalized groups such as domestic workers when enforcing travel bans and quarantines so that they protect and respect their dignity. Where their return to their countries is inevitable, forced return policies should comply with international human rights obligations.
In order to respond to the above problems, domestic migrant workers should have access to a domestic labor platform through domestic Worker’s Unions to amplify their challenges, educate them about their rights during the COVID-19 crisis, and provide resources and information on how to protect themselves and their families along with information on how to access treatment at their workplace. Conclusively, effective response to the COVID- 19 pandemic requires awareness campaigns, social distancing, quick and responsive reporting. These adopted strategies should equally apply to both formal and informal employees using an inclusive and equality approach as part of a global strategy to overcome this global crisis.
Daisy Nabasitu is an Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions in Uganda. She has served as a prosecutor for the las 16 years specializing in women and children’s rights. As a Hubert Humphrey Fellow in the United States at the Washington College of Law, American University, she served as a legal fellow at the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, DC. As a PhD fellow at Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, she is conducting research on forced labor and exploitation of migrant women domestic workers from Uganda.