By Yvonne Chen Contributor November 7, 2011

Too many migrant workers are suffering in modern slavery. It’s time for the international community to act.

On June 16, 2011, the International Labour Organization (ILO) signed Convention No. 189 on decent work for domestic workers. Labor experts called the convention a surprising breakthrough for millions of exploited women. In a speech to the ILO, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono calls migrant workers the country’s “economic heroes.” Two days later Saudi Arabia beheaded an Indonesian maid named Ruyati binti Sapubi.

Stories like Ruyati’s regularly make the front pages of Indonesian papers. Just a few weeks ago, on October 13, Tuti Tursilawati, another Indonesian maid who was abused by her employer, was sentenced in Saudi Arabia. Sumiati binti Salan Mustapa was hospitalized in Medina last year with broken bones and a mutilated face. The conviction of her employer was overturned. Keni binti Carda went home in 2008 with scars spread across her back and face. She said her employer burned her with an iron and forced her to eat excrement. Together, these events highlight the need for protections and the challenges of putting them in place. Similar stories will continue to emerge if not enough is done.

The ILO estimates there are up to 100 million domestic workers employed around the world. Fearing deportation, domestic workers often become bonded labor to pay off those who smuggled them into their new countries. To keep workers in bondage, employers or smugglers confiscate workers’ passports. It would seem that slavery does not only come in the obvious form in which one person owns another person.

Part of the blame lies on the governments of countries sending workers abroad. For example, Human Rights Watch has found that Indonesian migrant domestic workers continue to confront a range of abuses both during the recruitment process and while employed abroad.

Human Rights Watch has brought light to the issue for Indonesia. The organization argues that the government of Indonesia has failed to stop local recruiters from charging prospective migrants exorbitant fees that leave them indebted. While the government has imposed bans on new migration to countries where there are concerns of abuse, such as Malaysia, Kuwait and Jordan, negotiations on specifics have repeatedly stalled, leaving room for abuse in the interim.

The other end of the problem is the unhealthy competition from countries that demand less protection. In countries where most of their migrant workers are employed as domestic workers, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, domestic worker protection has become a foreign policy issue, which they often find themselves on the losing end of. Instead of responding to the negative publicity and calls for accountability after Ruyati’s execution, Saudi Arabia announced it would no longer hire Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers. Saudi recruiters then described plans to hire thousands of Bangladeshis at wages of $170 a month, less than half the amount that the Philippine government demanded.

History shows that freezes on migration and bilateral negotiations do not result in effectively securing better employment conditions for the long-term. More often they just shift migration patterns — with increased migration from countries that seek fewer protections for domestic workers. After a string of abuse cases in Malaysia, Indonesia announced a freeze on migration in 2009 and entered negotiations to improve conditions for migrant workers. Indonesia won a few concessions but no guarantee of a minimum wage. Two years later, after Malaysia started recruiting workers from Cambodia and negotiations had gone practically nowhere, Indonesia lifted the ban.

What should be done? After all, protecting domestic workers is about combating modern slavery, so concerned parties should start to think of the failure to protect Ruyati and Tuti as more than just the affairs of two countries.

More must be done to implement the good intentions of the newly signed ILO Convention. First, sending countries’ governments, in addition to signing the Convention and continuing to make demands of host governments, should also prohibit the practice of charging migrant workers recruitment fees, insist that the cost be borne by employers, and educate workers about their rights before departure. These governments should also make agencies responsible for ensuring passports stay with the workers and take reasonable measures to screen the employers they contract with.

Second, more international pressure needs to be placed on receiving countries to implement the principles of the Convention. Seeing that negative publicity and calls for accountability have resulted in few changes, international pressure should take on more serious forms. The world’s most influential trade partner, the United States, could create an important example through its bilateral demands of countries such as Saudi Arabia. For example, it could create a set of incentives and punishments that ensure the Convention principles are taken seriously.

The new ILO Convention is an important first step, but it will only be meaningful through the concerted action of the international community. For the sake of migrant workers around the world, sending and receiving countries and large international trading partners must demand that all parties live up to the Convention’s raised standards.

Photo courtesy of John & Mel Kots via Flickr.