Washington – When governments from around the globe passed a treaty in June to protect domestic workers, labor experts called it a surprising breakthrough for millions of exploited women.
Even countries that fail to ratify the pact will eventually be judged by its standards, they said, and the campaign to pass it had enlisted fresh allies, newly mindful of abuses from unpaid wages to rape.
Two days later, Saudi Arabia, a major destination for domestic workers, beheaded an Indonesian maid — at once highlighting the need for protections and the challenges of putting them in place.
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The execution followed reports from maids who said their Saudi bosses had burned or beaten them, and the condemned woman, who killed her employer, said she had been abused. But when the Indonesian president protested, the Saudis stopped hiring Indonesians and pointedly turned to cheaper workers from countries less likely to complain.
The twin developments — accord in Geneva and maid wars in Riyadh — show opposing forces in a global campaign to protect domestic workers, an overlooked group of as many as 100 million people.
More broadly, that campaign tests the effort to raise work standards in a world of cheap and mobile labor. Many domestic workers are migrants, and the precedents could shape the treatment of other migrant groups. On Sept. 30, for example, Hong Kong’s High Court struck down a law that had excluded domestic workers from the residency rights offered to other foreign citizens, potentially allowing 100,000 maids to gain the right to stay.
The events show that “officials have not forgotten about migrant workers,” said Philip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis. “But they are also a reminder of the difficulties of extending effective protections to them.”
“The receiving countries can always say, ‘We will get workers somewhere else,’ ” he said.
While acknowledging such challenges, the treaty’s supporters say that it establishes vital new principles and that it will accelerate changes already under way. Before the pact was approved, Singapore, Jordan and New York State had passed new laws, and proposals are being considered in places as different as California and Kuwait. Even Saudi Arabia, a source of frequent abuse complaints, is considering changes that officials may feel more inclined to accept after voting for the pact.
“The treaty was a watershed event,” said Nisha Varia, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is now a global consensus that these women deserve the same rights as other workers. All the governments involved in this conversation will be under pressure to examine their labor laws.”
As a labor force composed mostly of women who work behind closed doors, domestic workers are hard to organize and vulnerable to attack. Many countries exclude them from labor laws, leaving no legal boundaries on their hours or pay.
In the United States, domestic workers are covered by minimum-wage laws, but they are excluded from federal statutes on occupational health, overtime and the right to organize.
As long ago as 1965, the International Labor Organization, a branch of the United Nations, saw an “urgent need” to protect domestic workers, whom it called “singularly subject to exploitation.” But interest in formal action waned, and women flooded the workplace, making nannies and maids a cornerstone of modern economies.
The export of domestic workers became big business in migration hubs like Indonesia and the Philippines, where more than half the migrants are women. Both countries celebrate the sums the women send home and simmer at the stories of mistreatment that percolate in the news media.
Saudi Arabia is a prime destination for both countries. In 2008, a study by Ms. Varia cited dozens of cases that amounted “to forced labor, trafficking, or slavery-like conditions.” While abuses occur everywhere, the report said, Saudi Arabia prosecuted few cases and sometimes allowed bosses to pursue retaliatory charges, like theft, against victims who complained.
A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington declined to comment. In the past, Saudi officials have accused critics of exaggerating isolated cases of abuse, and noted that legions of women still seek the jobs.
When the international labor group turned to domestic workers in 2010, Persian Gulf states, speaking as a bloc, called for nonbinding recommendations. In a reversal this year, they supported a binding treaty.
What is more, they strengthened it, with calls for stronger language on contract rights, overtime pay and access to courts during employer conflicts.
“It really made an impression,” said Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila. “When you think of abuses, you think of the gulf — yet here they are, standing up for domestic workers.”
Pressure from the Arab Spring, Ms. Sana said, may help explain the change. Others note that the rotating leadership of the bloc passed to the United Arab Emirates, which is conscious of the region’s global reputation.
Of the 128 governments that voted, only Swaziland opposed the pact, which says domestic workers should enjoy rights equivalent to those given to other workers in the same country, including limited workweeks, overtime pay and paid vacations.
While the United States pushed hard for the pact, the Senate rarely approves labor treaties that would require changes in federal law, as this one would if ratified. Legally the pact applies only in countries that ratify it, but its uses as a yardstick may be broader.
Even as support for the treaty grew, so did reports of abuse in Saudi Arabia. Keni binti Carda, an Indonesian maid, 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.
A Sri Lankan maid, L. D. Ariyawathie, arrived home last year with two dozen nails in her body — hammered there, she said, by her employer.
After an Indonesian woman, Sumiati binti Salan Mustapa, was hospitalized in Medina last year with broken bones and a mutilated face, the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, condemned her “extraordinary torture.” But the conviction of her employer was overturned.
On June 18, two days after the Geneva vote, Saudi Arabia beheaded an Indonesian named Ruyati binti Sapubi. Mr. Yudhoyono denounced Saudi “norms and manners,” and the Saudis stopped admitting new Indonesian maids.
They had already placed a similar ban on the Philippines, after several Philippine lawmakers visited in January and wrote they were “shocked into speechlessness by the tales of rape and abuse.” Saudi recruiters then described plans to hire thousands of Bangladeshis at wages of $170 a month, less than half what the Philippine government demanded.
More battles may be pending. Under a new law, the Philippine government must identify which countries are acceptable destinations for domestic workers, which could prompt more conflicts like the one with the Saudis.
Still, Philippine officials say the treaty, by laying out common principles, has given them a new weapon in an old fight.
It is “a landmark accomplishment,” said Carlos Cao Jr., who runs the Philippine government’s overseas work program. “But you don’t change cultures overnight.”