Domestic Child Labor

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Be an Advocate to End Child Domestic Servitude!

Child domestic labor is a widespread and growing global phenomenon. This practice traps as many as ten million children or more—mostly girls—in hidden forms of exploitation, often involving abuse, health risks and violence (ILO report “Helping Hands or Shackled Lives? Understanding child domestic labor and responses to it.”)

Children in domestic labor are usually invisible in their communities, toiling for long hours with little or no pay, frequently abused, and regularly deprived of the chance to play or go to school. These children comprise a substantial portion of the more than 200 million children working in the world today. For example, studies show that 700,000 children can be found in domestic labor in Indonesia, 559,000 in Brazil, 250,000 in Haiti, 264,000 in Pakistan, 200,000 in Kenya, 100,000 in Sri Lanka, and 53,000 in South Africa.

These children work day and night outside of their family homes.  These are children in domestic service who are under the legal minimum working age, as well as those above the legal minimum age but under the age of 18 who are in an exploitative situation. Many of these children are very young—10% of child laborers in Haiti were under 10 years of age and 70% of children employed “by other households” in Morocco were under 12. According to the ILO report, all of these children are at risk because of the nature of child domestic labor, which is not only widely accepted but often considered a “better” alternative for children from poor families.

These children are in a workplace, even if that workplace is someone else’s home. They are hidden from public view and labor inspection. The children are consequently at risk not only of exploitation but also of abuse and violence. The exploitation and abuse is out of sight, and therefore often out of mind. What happens behind closed doors is frequently not known and thus these children face greater risks.

The report says that more girls under 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of labor. In countries like Brazil, Guatemala and Costa Rica, more than 90% of children working in domestic service are girls.

The root causes of child domestic labor are multiple and multi-faceted. Poverty and its feminization, social exclusion, lack of education, gender and ethnic discrimination, domestic violence, displacement, rural-urban migration and loss of parents due to conflicts and diseases, are just some of the multiple “push factors” for child domestic workers worldwide. Increasing social and economic disparities, debt bondage, the increasing need for the women of the household to have a “replacement” at home that will enable more and more of them to enter the labor market, and the illusion that domestic service gives the child worker an opportunity for education, are some of the “pull factors”.

According to the report, the status of women and girls, family and child poverty, ignorance of the risks of domestic service, the increasing number of AIDS orphans and the persistence of traditional hierarchies all contribute to pushing children into domestic labor. Factors on the “pull-side” are the perception of domestic service as preparation for marriage, the increasing affluence of parts of the population that reinforces hierarchies, and the need to pay off debt. Also, employers are often seen as benefactors or as an extended family, “aunties”.

The hazards linked to this practice are a matter of serious concern. There are a number of hazards that the child domestic workers are particularly vulnerable and the reason it may be considered to be one of the worst forms of child labor. Some of the most common risks children face in domestic service is:

  • Long and tiring working days;
  • Use of toxic cleaning or pest control chemicals;
  • Carrying heavy loads;
  • Handling dangerous items, such as knives, axes and hot pans;
  • Insufficient or inadequate food and accommodation; and
  • Humiliating or degrading treatment, including physical and verbal violence, and sexual abuse.

    These hazards need to be seen in association with the denial of fundamental rights of the children. The risks that these children face can have an irreversible physical, psychological and moral impact on the development, health and well-being of the child.

    However, not all child domestics end up without a future, the report says. The ILO experience in Asia, Central and South America and Africa shows that with strong social and national institutions, and income or credit options for the parents, children under the minimum working age can be successfully removed from domestic labor.

    The root causes and impact are very complex. As a result, any effort to adequately and efficiently address child domestic labor must include a multidisciplinary, multi-faceted and integrated approach that is linked to the broader context of poverty reduction, elimination and prevention of the worst forms of child labor and promotion and enforcement of the fundamental labor and human rights of children and adults.

    Child domestic labor is a waste of human talent and potential. With the help of constructive and sustainable solutions an end to this abuse can be achieved.

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