Over the past two years I traveled around Asia with Steve McCurry, a photographer known for fascinating faces, particularly the one on the cover of National Geographic magazine known as the “Afghan Girl,” to document the abuse some domestic workers endure at the hands of their household employers, either in their own country or abroad.
We found cases of child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, rape, starvation, excessive working hours, little or no pay and restricted freedom of movement or communication. We spoke with workers who had been beaten with a pot, a mop, a broom, a stick, a hanger, a cane and a metal pipe. We heard of women coming home in a coma or a coffin.
The victims were female and male, young and old, educated and illiterate (and their abusers also varied – female and male, rich and middle-class, living in Asia and in the Middle East). What linked them was a toxic combination of desperation, born out of poverty, and a lack of legal protection – in most countries, domestic workers are not protected by employment laws. In some societies, they are treated as “property” and not as individuals or even workers entitled to equal treatment and rights as most other workers.
We met a Nepali woman who had been blinded from repeated beatings by her female employer in Saudi Arabia and had had feces rubbed into her face. An Indonesian woman’s back was heavily scarred – almost in the shape of angel wings – by boiling water that her male employer in Malaysia had thrown on her. I tried to count the scars on another Indonesian woman’s body but lost track after reaching 20; she did not know what her male employer in Taiwan had used to cause many of them, including the slash across her face.
In Nepal we interviewed a pregnant woman who, when she told her female employer in Oman that her policeman husband had raped her, was thrown into prison for three months for seduction. Pregnant, she was in hiding because she feared her family would desert her. Another Nepali woman, hired by a family in Kuwait to look after 13 children, was beaten because she resisted working in the family’s brothel.
In a Hong Kong shelter Indonesian woman recalled how her female employer spoke to her: “Come here, dog. You are stupid. You are a dog. Helper, come here.” Also in Hong Kong we met another woman from Indonesia who had been given only bread in the mornings, instant noodles for lunch and leftovers (if there were any) for dinner. Her weight dropped more than 30 pounds before she finally ran away.
I met a Filipina who told me she had been given the top of the washing machine to sleep on. She giggled when explaining that her male employer liked to wash clothes at night time, so she had to lay there while the machine shook. She didn’t really think it was funny, but what could she do – the law in Hong Kong, one of the few places in the world that actually has legislation that covers domestic workers, requires them to live in the homes of their employers. Never mind that the “room” they may be given is a cupboard, a stairwell, a bathroom – or the top of a washing machine.
And we met an Indonesian woman whose employment agency staff tried to talk her into accepting a wage increase if she would stay with her mentally and physically abusive female employer. She feared for her life and wanted out. The employer had once said, “If I hit you and kill you, no one will know.” The agency then placed another woman in that home. Earlier this year, Hong Kong streets erupted in a massive protest against the abuse and inhumane conditions after a photo emerged of a young woman, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, severely battered from beatings and medical neglect she endured by that same female employer. A different agency had placed her, but employment agents are also culpable in the abuse.
When another Indonesian woman we met had run away in Malaysia because of beatings by her young male employer, the police took her back and her employment agent threatened legal action if she tried to run again. Many domestic workers have their passports taken from them by their employer or agent after arriving in a foreign country, which is one reason why they find it difficult to leave when the abuse starts. Many don’t know where to go. Many are just so desperate to send money home that they endure as best they can.
That same woman who had run away had lost a front tooth when her male employer threw a shoe at her for heating up the “wrong” soup and whose ear is now permanently deformed from his constant twisting of it. She is reluctantly considering going abroad again as a maid because her husband can find no work.
These are not uncommon experiences.
Steve McCurry and I thought the general public needed to see how the abuse scars lives as much as bodies. We wanted to help make the case for labor law protection for domestic workers. We also know that decency cannot be legislated, so we wanted abusers to know the public is now aware of what is going on behind their doors.
Many women in this line of work have good experiences – though their hours may be excessive, without overtime pay, benefits or days off, they earn more than they could back home. And there are certainly many decent household employers in every country.
But the International Labor Organization, which is the United Nation’s specialized agency dealing with work-related issues and which funded our photography project, estimates that there are more than 52 million domestic workers in the world. So even if a minority of them experiences the staggering meanness or the criminal evilness that we found, that is still likely a vast number of abuse cases.
In 2011, a new International Labor Organization Convention (treaty) specifically covering the rights of domestic workers came into force. Thus far it has been ratified by only 15 countries – by only one (the Philippines) in the Asia–Pacific region and none in the Middle East. Ratifying Convention No. 189 is important because it obliges governments to bring their national laws and enforcement in line with the recognition of domestic workers as deserving of the same labor law rights and protection accorded to most workers.
No one should work the way the people we photographed have worked.
Text by Karen Emmons, photographs by Steve McCurry