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6. Domestic Workers' Rights in the United States, ICCPR Coalition Report

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Domestic Workers’ Rights in the United States:
A report prepared for the U.N. Human Rights Committee
In response to the Second and Third Periodic Report of the United States

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Employed in private homes to perform household tasks that historically have been assigned a
diminished value, domestic workers frequently face exploitation and abuse, a problem further
exacerbated by their association with particular groups (women, minorities, and migrants) who
suffer multiple forms of discrimination. Domestic workers experience abuses ranging from
verbal abuse and economic exploitation to physical and sexual assault and forced servitude.
Although U.S. laws should protect them, domestic workers find that they are often excluded
from legal protections or that the laws are not enforced. This reprehensible abuse of domestic
workers violates Articles 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 12, 17, 19, 21, 22, and 26 of the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights.
Violations of Workers’ Rights (Articles 2, 3 ,8, 21, 22, and 26)
Forced Servitude (Articles 8 and 2)
Article 8 prohibits slavery, servitude, or forced labor; yet, many domestic workers suffer these
conditions. Trapped in economically abusive employment, domestic workers may receive little
pay while working long hours in dangerous conditions. Some employers forbid domestic
workers from leaving the house, confiscate their passports, or threaten deportation to keep them
imprisoned and financially enslaved in their abusive positions. Without English language skills,
contacts in the community, or information about resources, domestic workers are often left
without recourse.
Substandard Working Conditions (Articles 8, 2, 3, and 26)
Domestic workers often endure various inhumane work conditions including lack of food,
medical care and sleep in violation of Article 8. They have been forced to sleep in rooms
without heat, on hard floors, or in moldy basements. At times they use hazardous materials
without any safety warnings. Domestic workers are often severely underpaid and without
overtime wages. Unfortunately, U.S. laws are inadequate and their enforcement is insufficient,
which violates Articles 2, 3, and 26 of the ICCPR.
Right to assembly and association (Articles 21, 22, and 2)
The right to assembly and association are protected under Articles 21 and 22, and are to be read
broadly. In contravention of those directives, the United States excludes domestic workers from
laws that would protect the right to assemble, associate, and form a union. Domestic workers are
excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) which is the primary guarantee of
workers’ right to organize. Any possible contract remedy available to workers has been
recognized by the Committee as an insufficient guarantee of these rights.

1

Violations of Personal Rights (Articles 2, 7, 9, 12, 17, 19)
Domestic Violence (Articles 7, 9, and 2)
Article 7 prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment while Article 9 guarantees “the right to
liberty and security of person.” Both Articles are violated when domestic workers suffer
psychological, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Employers may engage in control tactics,
such as regulating the workers’ food consumptions or confiscating their passports. Others use
verbal abuse, including insults and name-calling. Some domestic workers experience physical
and sexual assaults. These abuses are essentially unregulated and often remain unreported.
Limitations on Freedom of Movement (Articles 12 and 7)
Article 12 protects domestic workers’ freedom of movement and is applicable to both state and
private actors. The State Department requires that employers who are foreign diplomats or the
staff of international organizations must sign employment contracts with domestic workers that
state that the employee cannot be required to stay on the premises without additional
compensation and that her passport cannot be confiscated. Such regulations, however, fail to
cover a substantial number of domestic workers, and enforcement and monitoring of those
regulations are almost non-existent. Private employers use other means of restricting their
workers’ freedom of movement including requiring an escort when leaving the premises and
misrepresenting U.S. laws, culture, and the dangers of the streets.
Privacy Invasions (Article 17)
Article 17 protects the domestic worker from “arbitrary or unlawful interference with her
privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Due to the nature of her work, the domestic worker
is particularly vulnerable to privacy invasions. Employers have been documented to interfere
with workers’ rights in a number of different ways, including monitoring phone conversations,
restricting access to others, opening mail, and searching the workers’ private effects and rooms.
Some employers have interfered with domestic workers’ families by threatening or harassing the
workers’ families, often in an attempt to get them to persuade the worker to drop a complaint.
Limitations on Freedom of Expression (Article 19)
Freedom of expression is protected by Article 19. Employers limit a domestic worker’s freedom
of expression by restricting her communication, limiting her freedom of movement, and
threatening deportation or retaliation against her family if she reports abuses. Article 19 also
includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas. These rights are denied
because the United States has failed to provide adequate access to legal and social services and to
create a safe and effective reporting model by which workers can complain of abuses. Without
these resources, workers cannot fully realize their rights under Article 19.
Denial of Effective Remedies (Article 2)
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Scope of Protection Under the ICCPR as adopted by the
United States
U.S. declarations, reservations and understandings have lessened the protection of domestic
workers under the ICCPR. In addition, the United States has failed to ratify the ICCPR’s first
Optional Protocol. By narrowing of the scope of ICCPR protection and by denying recourse for

2

the individual, the United States has violated the spirit of Article 2 and has hindered individuals,
including domestic workers, in their quest to attain justice.
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Diplomatic Immunity (Article 2)
Employers of domestic workers who are protected by diplomatic immunity are not subject to the
civil, criminal or administrative jurisdiction of the United States, a protection that denies
domestic workers the ability to obtain a remedy against them. U.S. courts have aggravated this
problem by interpreting the commercial activity exception contained in Article 31(c) of the
Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to exclude domestic workers.
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Immigration Status
The connection between domestic workers’ immigration status and her employment is exploited
by employers to discourage the reporting of violations. The United States exacerbates this
vulnerability by: (1) allowing inquiry into the domestic workers immigration status should she
report a violation and (2) failing to provide a vehicle through which domestic workers fired after
reporting abuses can obtain another visa and stay in the United States to pursue a remedy.
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Practical Obstacles
The private nature of domestic work means that there is a greater need for an effective
monitoring system and for greater access to information. The United States has failed to
recognize these unique needs and thus far has not provided either an adequate means of
monitoring domestic work nor sufficient access to social or informational services. Thus,
domestic workers lack the means to report violations or obtain remedies.

3

INTRODUCTION
1. Domestic workers are employed in private homes to perform household tasks traditionally
perceived as inferior or “women’s” work. In the United States as in other countries,
domestic workers are often not viewed as “real” workers, and some employers liken their
workers to “family” members. Historically unappreciated, the work continues to be afforded
little worth. The national and local labor laws frequently exclude domestic workers from the
protections offered to other workers. As a result, domestic workers may find themselves
devalued and powerless within the employment situation.
2. The degree of inequality between the employer and the domestic worker can be further
stratified by racial, gender, and other types of prejudice. Domestic workers are frequently
women, minorities, and immigrants. In a recent survey of more than five hundred domestic
workers conducted by Domestic Workers United and DataCenter (based in New York City),
ninety-nine percent (99%) of those surveyed were foreign-born, and seventy-six percent
(76%) were non-U.S. citizens. Ninety-three percent (93%) were female. Only one percent
(1%) self-identified as non-Hispanic white. These intersecting identities often subject
domestic workers to significant hardship in a patriarchal and racist American society.
Subjugated to a lesser societal status, domestic workers are often1 exploited and their
fundamental rights and freedoms violated.
3. Domestic workers often face psychological abuse and economic exploitation, as well as
severe physical, sexual, and verbal assault and battery, de facto imprisonment, and forced
servitude. While U.S. laws should offer protection, domestic workers, as a class, find that
they are excluded under many existing laws or that the protection the laws purport to provide
does not actually exist. Domestic workers need protection that is not readily forthcoming
from the United States government. Therefore, it is imperative that the abuses suffered by
domestic workers be recognized by the Human Rights Committee as violations of Articles 2,
3, 7, 8, 9, 12, 17, 19, 21, 22, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR), and that the Committee make recommendations to the U.S. Government to
meet its obligations in this area.

VIOLATIONS OF WORKERS’ RIGHTS – ARTICLES 2, 3, 8, 21, 22, 26
We have been forced here because U.S. foreign policy has created
poverty in our home countries. Once we are here in the U.S.,
searching for a way to survive, we are pushed into exploited jobs
where our work is not recognized, respected or protected.
- Joycelyn Campbell, Nanny in Hoboken and Manhattan,
from Barbados2
1

Terms like “often” and “many” are used because of the difficulty in obtaining accurate statistics about domestic
workers due to the hidden nature of their work.
2

Domestic Workers United and DataCenter, Home is Where the Work Is: Inside New York’s Domestic Work Industry,” May
2006, p. 13.

4

4. Because of the private nature of their work, the United States has failed to fully recognize the
domestic worker’s status as an employee. Instead, all too often both employers and the U.S.
government see the domestic worker as a possession of the family. Such a conceptualization
enables the ongoing violation of domestic workers’ rights. A domestic worker is afforded
rights as a worker under various Articles of the ICCPR, including Article 8, which prohibits
slavery, servitude, and forced labor, and Articles 21 and 22, which protect the rights to
assembly and association. Nonetheless, domestic workers in the U.S. often find themselves
held in servitude, unable to assert their rights to assembly and association.
Forced Servitude (Articles 8 and 2)
5. Article 8 of the ICCPR states that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude or be “required
to perform forced or compulsory labor.” The Human Rights Committee has recognized the
severity of this type of violation; yet, many domestic workers in the United States work in
situations which could be classified as servitude or forced labor in violation of Article 8.
Being held in servitude or forced to perform compulsory labor is the main form of abuse
suffered by domestic workers in the United States and is the base abuse from which most
other abuses stem.
6. Although the ICCPR does not explicitly define “servitude”, interpretations suggest that it
consists of “a dependent, economically abusive labor relationship” with “no reasonable
possibility of escape.”3 Forced or compulsory labor covers an even larger range of
employment situations. The International Labor Organization Forced Labor Convention
defined forced or compulsory labor to mean “all work or service which is exacted from any
person under the menace of penalty [including a “loss of rights or privileges”4] and for which
the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”5 Work entered into without knowledge
and informed consent is commonly considered involuntary.6 Similarly, the U.S. Trafficking
Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 effectively overruled prior precedent which had limited the
U.S. interpretation of involuntary servitude to situations using or threatening the use of
physical or legal coercion.7 U.S. law now prohibits obtaining another’s labor by employing
not only physical, but also psychological, methods of coercion.8 Still, these forms of
coercive work situations continue to occur in the United States at an alarming rate.
7. In the worst cases, domestic workers are being held in servitude. Their situations exemplify
economically abusive relationships: they receive little or no pay and work long hours in
dangerous conditions with little rest. Some employers forbid workers from leaving the house
unaccompanied and may even physically restrain the workers or lock them inside the house.
Others confiscate workers’ passports or use threats of deportation to keep workers
3

Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States, Human Rights Watch Report, June
2001, Vol. 13, No. 2, at 50.
4
International Labor Conference, 1979 General Survey of the Reports relating to the Forced Labor Convention, 1930 (No. 29)
and the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, 1975, (No. 105), Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of
Convention and Recommendations, 65th Session, Geneva, 1979, Report III, para. 21.
5
International Labor Conference, Forced Labor Convention, Convention (No. 29) Concerning Forced Labor, adopted June 28,
1930 (entered into force May 1, 1932) at Art. 2(1).
6
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 51.
7
U.S. v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931 (1988).
8

18 U.S.C. § 1589 (2000); See United States v. Bradley, 390 F.3d 145, 150 (2004).

5

imprisoned.9 Psychological tactics are also commonly employed. Some employers, with the
intent of instilling into the workers a fear of leaving the house, fabricate stories exaggerating
the danger of the U.S. streets.10 Physically, mentally, and financially coercive methods are
all used to keep the domestic workers enslaved.
8. Even if not servitude, the situations of many domestic workers amount to forced or
compulsory labor. These individuals, sometimes trafficking victims, are brought to work for
their employers under false promises of higher pay and desirable working conditions. When
the employers fail to honor their agreements, fear or financial instability can enslave
domestic workers in abusive jobs. Particularly for migrant workers, unfamiliar with U.S.
laws and culture and without local friends, leaving the abusive situation may not be a viable
option. Domestic workers need the little money they are making. Without information about
available resources, the workers are trapped.
Substandard Working Conditions (Articles 8, 2, 3, and 26)
9. The substandard working conditions of domestic workers illustrate how their rights are being
violated under Article 8 of the ICCPR. Although domestic workers may be caring for their
employers’ most valuable possessions, their children, or completing tasks essential to the
operation of the household, a surprising number of domestic workers are exploited. For
example, in the recent Domestic Workers United and DataCenter survey in New York City,
one half of the more than five hundred workers surveyed earn low wages (less than the local
“living wage”), with an additional quarter of the workers making either below the poverty
line or below minimum wage. (The current federal minimum wage, to which domestic
workers are entitled, is $5.15 per hour.11) These illegally low wages reflect the failure of the
U.S. government to enforce domestic laws in protection of domestic workers. The lack of
enforcement implicates violations by the U.S. government of Article 2, guaranteeing
effective remedies for violations; Article 3, ensuring equal protection of men and women;
and Article 26, requiring equality of all people before the law.
10. Domestic workers endure long hours with little rest and often face appalling work and living
conditions. Many domestic workers are deprived of sleep or are forced to sleep in rooms
without heat, on hard floors, or in moldy basements. Some domestic workers have been
instructed to use strong cleaning chemicals without being given any warning of safety
precautions. In severe cases, workers have been denied food necessary for proper nutrition.12
Many domestic workers are without health insurance, and for workers whose employers
restrict their freedom of movement, their access to medical care can be limited or even
eliminated.13
11. Domestic workers are often not covered under U.S. labor laws, and the protection that some
laws purport to provide does not actually exist. For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act
excludes live-in domestic workers from its overtime compensation regulations.14 Other laws,
9

Id. at 13.
Id. at 13.
11
The federal minimum wage is the absolute lowest allowed. Some state laws require a higher wage. 29 U.S.C. § 206(f) (2005).
12
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 16.
13
Id.
14
29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(21) (2005).
10

6

while not explicitly excluding domestic workers, deny protection in practice. The
Occupational Safety and Health Act provides for safe and healthy working conditions for all
people,15 yet the regulations governing enforcement of the Act exclude domestic workers.16
By failing to provide adequate protection to domestic workers, these laws, though not having
a particular purpose to discriminate against women, minorities, and migrants, have that
effect. The resulting discrimination is in violation of Article 26 of the ICCPR.
Right to assembly and association (Articles 21, 22, and 2)
12. Articles 21 and 22 of the ICCPR require that everyone shall have the right to assemble and
associate, and that no restrictions may be placed on those rights except in limited
circumstances.17 Although the Human Rights Committee has not commented directly on
these rights under the ICCPR (namely because the language in Articles 21 and 22 is fairly
explicit), decisions under other treaties, containing nearly duplicative language as Articles 21
and 22 of the ICCPR, indicate some conclusions about those rights. For instance, freedom of
association affects more than just trade unions and enjoys a broad interpretation.18 It also
requires that States adopt laws that provide “full and comprehensive rights to freedom of
association.”19
13. The United States, however, in violation of Article 2 of the ICCPR, fails to provide domestic
workers with full and comprehensive protection of the right to freedom of association or
assembly. The First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution protect
domestic workers’ right to organize and peacefully assemble but only as against the federal
and state governments, not private employers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is
the primary guarantee of U.S. workers’ right to organize. It protects employees’ “right to
self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through
representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the
purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”20 The right is extended
broadly to employees, but notably excludes domestic workers.21
14. Exclusion from the NLRA leaves domestic workers unprotected against private employers
who deny them their right to associate and assemble peacefully. An employer, when
violating those rights under the ICCPR, does not violate any U.S. law, nor is there any U.S.
law under which the worker may bring suit. Even if a domestic worker has a contract
assuring the right to associate and assemble, the Committee has stated that “a formal right to

15

29 U.S.C. § 651(b) (2005).
29 C.F.R. § 1975.6 (2005). Infra see Denial of Effective Remedies, p. 19.
17
ICCPR Articles 21 and 22. Restrictions on the right to assembly and association may be imposed to protect national security,
public safety and order, the protection of public health or morals or for the protection of the rights of freedoms of others.
18
See, e.g., United Communist Party of Turkey and Others v. Turkey, European Court of Human Rights, (133/1996/752/951)
(Grand Chamber decision, January 30, 1998); Sidiropoulos and Others v. Greece, European Court of Human Rights
(57/1997/841/1047) (Chamber decision, July 10, 1998); Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖZDEP) v. Turkey, European Court of
Human Rights, (93 1998/22/95/784) (Grand Chamber decision, December 8, 1999)
19
Human Rights Committee [hereinafter “HRC”], Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Croatia, April 30,
2001, available http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/7c3306a53f34ff43c1256a2a0036d955?Opendocument.
20
29 U.S.C. § 157.
21
29 U.S.C. § 152(3). The NLRA also excludes other groups like agricultural workers and independent contractors.
16

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sue for breach of contract may well be insufficient” and has recommended that states extend
coverage of labor laws to domestic workers.22

VIOLATIONS OF PERSONAL RIGHTS – ARTICLES 2, 3, 7, 9, 12, 17, 19
I wasn’t allowed to sit at the same table…I wasn’t allowed to wash
my clothes with their clothes. They made me different. Sometimes
the food I cooked didn’t taste good to them, and they would yell at
me. They made me [feel] like…they were my owner.
-Rokeya Akhatar, a Bangladeshi domestic worker
employed by the family of a Middle Eastern
businessman23
15. Treatment of domestic workers in the personal realm – because of who they are – is a result
of a constructed identity created through and reinforced by violations of the ICCPR. The
personal rights of domestic workers are protected under various Articles in the ICCPR.
Protection against domestic violence is found in Article 7. Article 12 protects domestic
workers’ freedom of movement and access to others, while Article 17 protects their privacy.
Finally, freedom of expression is protected by Article 19. It is important to note that the
violation of personal rights impacts domestic workers differently depending on what type of
domestic worker they are. For example, some domestic workers live on the same premises
as where they work. These live-in domestic workers are often subject to greater violations of
personal rights than those who merely work on the premises.
Domestic Violence (Articles 7, 9, and 2)
16. Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and aims to protect
“the dignity and the physical and mental integrity of the individual” against degrading
treatment inflicted by both official and private actors.24 An individual’s well-being is
additionally protected by Article 9’s guarantee of “the right to liberty and security of person.”
Yet, many domestic workers in the United States are stripped of their liberty, security, and
dignity as they suffer domestic violence at the hands of their employers. The verbal,
psychological, physical, and sexual abuse of domestic workers violates both Articles 7 and 9.
17. By virtue of the diminished value many place upon the household tasks they complete,
domestic workers sometimes find themselves devalued within their employment situations.
The degree of inequality between the employer and the domestic worker can be further
stratified by racial, gender, and other types of prejudice. An overwhelming majority of

22

HRC, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Netherlands, Aug. 8 2001, available
http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/dbab71d01e02db11c1256a950041d732?Opendocument.
23
Human Rights Watch interview, Akhatar, Astoria, NY, March 5, 2000 (reprinted in Hidden in the Home, Human Rights Watch
Report, June 2001, Vol. 13, No. 2, at 18).
24
HRC, General Comment 20, Article 7 (Forty-fourth session, 1992), Compilation of General Comments and General
Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 30, para. 2 (1994).

8

domestic workers are women25 and a vast number are also minorities26 and migrants.27 As
members of groups that have historically been subjugated to a lesser societal status, domestic
workers are all too often viewed in their workplace as second-rate individuals whose human
rights deserve little respect.
18. Disrespect of domestic workers can escalate into different types of abuse. For some the
abuse is psychological. Their privacy is invaded and autonomy disregarded. Employers may
engage in control tactics, such as regulating the workers’ food consumptions or confiscating
their passports,28 to make the workers feel inferior and helpless. Commonly the abuse is
verbal, including insults and name-calling. The employers’ degrading actions and policies
can result in a system in which the domestic worker is dehumanized and treated without
common decency or respect. For others, the abuse is physical and can include slapping,
kicking, hitting, shoving, assaults with a weapon, and threats of physical harm.29 Female
domestic workers have also experienced sexual assaults and harassment.30 Many of these
workers remain at their jobs despite the abuse because they feel too frightened or helpless to
leave or because they believe that they have no better alternative.
19. The abuse of domestic workers is essentially unregulated and often remains unreported.
Rights, protections, and enforcement measures extended to other types of workers under U.S.
law often do not reach domestic workers employed in private residences.31 For example,
Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in employment and sexual harassment in the
workplace, applies only to employers with at least fifteen employees.32 Domestic workers,
who are generally employed by someone with fewer than fifteen employees, therefore are
usually not covered by Title VII. Even when the abuses, such as the physical assaults, are
prohibited by law, domestic workers are frequently unprotected in violation of Article 2 of
the ICCPR. Because domestic workers’ duties are mainly confined to individual private
residences, the abuse the workers suffer, like the domestic abuse of spouses and children,
often remains shielded from the public eye.
Limitations on Freedom of Movement (Articles 12 and 7)
20. According to the Committee, the freedom of movement protected by Article 12 should not be
subjected to “the decision of another person,”33 and the right to that freedom should be
enforced against both state and private actors.34 The Committee has recognized that
restrictions on a women’s ability to obtain travel documents violate her right to freedom of
movement.35 Additionally, the Committee has remarked that freedom of movement can be
25

According to the Department of Labor, women comprised 92.2% of the people employed in services work in private
households in 2004. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, U.S. DEP’T OF LABOR, WOMEN IN THE LABOR FORCE: A DATABOOK, tbl. 14
(2005), available at http://www.bls.gov/cps/wlf-table14-2005.pdf.
26
Margaret L. Satterthwaite, Testimony Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (October 14, 2005).
27
Kristi L. Graunke, “Just Like One of the Family”: Domestic Violence Paradigms and Combating On-the-Job Violence against
Household Workers in the United States, 9 MICH. J. GENDER & L. 131, 151 (2002).
28
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 8, 10.
29
Id. at 12.
30
Id. at 12.
31
See, e.g., 29 C.F.R. § 1975.6 (2005).
32
42 U.S.C. § 2000e (2005).
33
HRC, General Comment 27, Freedom of movement (Art.12), U.N. Doc CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.9 (1999).
34
Id.
35
The Committee expressed concern with “the manifold legal and bureaucratic barriers” affecting freedom of movement. Id.

9

impacted by violations of other Articles: i.e. Article 7 (prohibiting cruel treatment) and 9
(right to liberty and security of the person) violations where private employers lock domestic
workers in the home amounting to arbitrary detention.36
21. U.S. laws and regulations are in place to protect domestic workers’ freedom of movement.
First, for domestic workers in the United States under G-5 and A-3 visas,37 the State
Department requires employment contracts that state both that the employee cannot be
required to stay on the employer’s premises after working hours without additional
compensation and that the employee’s passport will not be confiscated.38 Additionally, the
State Department and the Fair Labor Standards Act39 require employers of domestic workers
to pay the federal minimum wage,40 which, in theory, should enable domestic workers to
have the economic means to travel. While on the face, U.S. laws seem to offer strong
protection for freedom of movement, protection is poorly implemented and does not cover all
individuals. For instance, the laws suffer from gaps that fail to protect B-1 domestic
workers,41 for whom employment contracts are not required, and those who come to the
United States illegally and therefore are not covered by State Department regulations.
Additionally, no governmental monitoring mechanism exists to ensure that employers
actually follow employment contracts and minimum wage requirements.42 In fact, the data
suggests that employers regularly confiscate passports and pay domestic workers under the
minimum wage.43
22. Employment conditions also limit domestic worker’s freedom of movement. With domestic
workers working an average of 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, their movement during these
working hours is limited.44 Employers often put conditions on when domestic workers can
leave the premises, allowing domestic workers to leave only on days off, requiring employer
permission, or even an escort, to leave the premises, or denying the domestic worker a key to
the house.45
23. Employers also play off of the identity of the domestic workers and the nature of her work to
limit freedom of movement. Employers often misrepresent U.S. laws, culture, and the
dangers of the streets, prohibit workers from speaking with anyone outside their immediate

36

HRC, General Comment 28, Equality of rights between men and women (article 3), U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.10
(2000). (“States should provide information on any laws or practices which may deprive women of their liberty on an arbitrary
or unequal basis, such as by confinement within the house.”).
37
A-3 visas are issued to domestic workers who “work for ambassadors, diplomats, consular officers, public ministers, and their
families” and G-5 visas to those who work for officers and employees of international organizations or foreign missions to
international organizations .” Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 4.
38
9 FAM 41.21 N6.2(A)(3)(4) (Feb. 9, 2000).
39
29 U.S.C. 202(a)(b).
40
9 FAM 41.21 N6.2(A)(1) (Feb. 9, 2000); 9 FAM 41.31 N6.3-2, N6.3-3.
41
B-1 visas are assigned to “U.S. citizens who reside abroad but are visiting the United States or assigned to the United States
temporarily for no more than four years, or foreign nationals with nonimmigrant status in the United States.” Hidden in the
Home, supra note 2, at 4.
42
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 13.
43
According to one report, in almost half the cases examined, employers confiscated domestic workers’ passports.43 With regard
to wage, that same report found the median average wage of 40 domestic workers to be only $2.14. Id. at 13.
44
Id. at 17.
45
Id. In General Comment 27, the Committee states that in some cases “measures preventing women from moving freely or
from leaving the country by requiring them to have the consent or the escort of a male person constitute a violation of article.”

10

families, deny workers the right to attend religious services, and threaten deportation.46 In
this way, employers exploit domestic workers’ status as both immigrants and women,
instilling in them fears that lead domestic workers to retreat to seclusion. Additionally,
psychological and physical abuse can produce fear that creates “social and cultural isolation
and a sense of helplessness and disempowerment” which keeps domestic workers in their
employment relationship and denies them freedom of movement.47
Privacy Invasions (Article 17)
24. Article 17 of the ICCPR protects the domestic worker from “arbitrary or unlawful
interference with her privacy, family, home or correspondence.”48 The Committee has
interpreted this to mean that “correspondence should be delivered to the addressee without
interception and without being opened or otherwise read. Surveillance. . . interceptions of
telephonic, telegraphic and other forms of communication. . . should be prohibited. Searches
of a person's home should be restricted to a search for necessary evidence and should not be
allowed to amount to harassment.”49
25. The domestic worker is particularly vulnerable to arbitrary interference with her privacy due
to the nature of her work, especially if she is a live-in worker. Monitoring phone
conversations and restricting access to others, either by requiring an escort or otherwise, are
violations of Article 17. In addition, domestic workers report that their employers listen in
on telephone conversations, open and read their mail, and search their purses and rooms.50
Article 17 also protects the domestic workers against arbitrary interference with her family.
Nonetheless, domestic workers report that employers visit or otherwise contact their home
countries to threaten and harass workers’ families for various reasons, including to persuade
the worker to drop any suit against the employer.51
Limitations on Freedom of Expression (Article 19)
26. The U.S. Government Report fails to address freedom of expression in terms of domestic
workers and instead focus on how this right is protected by the First Amendment. But the
Human Rights Committee desires that state reports not just mention that freedom of
expression is protected under the Constitution, but also discuss “rules which either define the
scope of freedom of expression or which set forth certain restrictions, as well as any other
conditions which in practice affect the exercise of this right.”52 It is this last directive, which
while unmentioned by the United States in its State report, that gives valuable insight into the
plight of the domestic worker.

46

Id. at 13. The threat of deportation can lead to severe seclusion for domestic workers in the U.S. illegally. See Margaret
Satterthwaite, Crossing Borders, Claiming Rights: Using Human Rights Law to Empower Women Migrant Workers, 8 Yale H.R.
& Dev. L.J. 1 (2005); Denying domestic workers the ability to attend religious services also is a violation of Article 18.
47
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 21.
48
ICCPR Article 17.
49
General Comment 28, supra note 40.
50
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 18.
51
Id. at 32-33. For example, Human Rights Watch documented the story of Gladys Larbu, a domestic worker from Ghana.
After she left her employer and filed a complaint against him with the World Bank, her employer visited her mother in Ghana
where he made threats and pressured her mother to get her to drop the complaint.
52
HRC, General Comment 23, Article 27 (Fiftieth session, 1994), Compilation of General Comments and General
Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 38 (1994).

11

27. For the domestic worker, it is the conditions which in practice affect her right to freedom of
expression that reflect violations of that right by both private employers and the state.
Employers of domestic workers limit their freedom of expression directly through three
primary means: (1) limiting who the worker speaks with either directly or by misrepresenting
the dangers of talking to “strangers”53 or talking in her native language;54 (2) limiting the
worker’s freedom of movement;55 and (3) threatening deportation or retaliation against the
worker’s family if she reports abuses.56
28. Freedom of expression also includes “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas of all kinds.” Yet the United States fails to provide adequate mechanisms through
which domestic workers can enjoy this right. More specifically, the United States has not
implemented an effective and safe reporting model through which domestic workers can
complain of abuses at work, nor does it provide adequate access to legal services.
29. Due to the nature of domestic work, the burden of enforcement lies with the domestic
worker. However, the domestic worker who seeks to file such a complaint faces enormous
barriers and risks in doing so. To begin with, domestic workers express a number of fears
that prevent such reporting, including “lack of knowledge of the U.S. legal system” and “fear
that employers would report them to the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and
that they would subsequently be removed from the United States.”57 These fears are wellfounded. The United States has failed to structure a visa and work authorization system
which allows workers to stay in the United States to pursue remedies. For those who are in
the United States illegally, their immigration status can be investigated should they report a
violation, and they subsequently will face deportation. Because domestic workers’ visas are
tied to their employment, if an employer fires his worker for reporting a violation, the worker
could face deportation or may economically be unable to stay in the United States if she can
not obtain work authorization.58
DENIAL OF EFFECTIVE REMEDIES – ARTICLE 2
[A] Filipina woman named Corazon Tabion worked for Jordanian
diplomats in Washington, D.C., where she claims they paid her 50
cents per hour for 16 hour workdays. They confiscated her
passport, and made threats to have her arrested and deported if she
left, abuses typical for the domestic worker of a diplomat. Ten
years ago, Ms. Tabion filed suit against her employer, seeking her
back wages, among other remedies. Ms. Tabion’s lawyers argued
that an exception to immunity applied—the commercial activities
exception. The Court disagreed with Ms. Tabion, and upheld
53

Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 14.
Id. at 15. See also Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Violations in the United States: A
Report on U.S. Compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1993) (discussing how language rights
are protected under Article 2 of the ICCPR).
55
See infra discussion of ICCPR Article 12, Freedom of Movement.
56
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 32.
57
Id. at 32.
58
Id., at 33-34
54

12

immunity. One year later, the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit
affirmed this ruling in Tabion v. Mufti.59 Since then, advocates for
the exploited workers of diplomats have been denied access to the
courts in any case where diplomats invoke their immunity. 60
30. Many domestic workers face cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of their employers.
Though private actors are the ones actively committing abuses against domestic workers, the
government response, or lack thereof, allows the abuses to perpetuate. Domestic workers,
after enduring various abuses, are often denied access to effective remedies for these abuses.
The U.S. government, as party to the ICCPR, has the duty to protect the rights of all people.
Yet, even that scope of protection has been reduced by the U.S. reservations, understandings,
and declarations to the ICCPR as well as by the absence of any private cause of action for the
workers themselves. Domestic workers employed by diplomats may even find themselves
precluded from obtaining remedies when their employers’ abusive actions are protected by
under diplomatic immunity. The immigration status of domestic workers often poses an
additional barrier to remedies. Finally, domestic workers confront a variety of practical
obstacles stemming from the private nature of the work, lack of knowledge about rights, and
lack of available resources.
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Scope of Protection under the ICCPR as adopted by the
United States
31. The U.S. reservations, understandings, and declarations, designed to make the ICCPR more
compatible with the already existing laws of the United States,61 have lessened the protection
of domestic workers’ rights under the treaty. One reservation states that the “United States
considers itself bound by article 7 to the extent that ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment’ means the cruel and unusual treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth,
Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.”62
Furthermore, the United States felt that the “broad anti-discrimination provisions [of the
ICCPR]. . . do not precisely comport with longstanding Supreme Court doctrine in the equal
protection field.”63 As a result the United States included an understanding attempting to
ensure that the terms of Article 2 and Article 26 coincide with current domestic law and
precedent, thereby precluding those anti-discrimination Articles from providing anyone,
including domestic workers, with protections greater than those already provided by
domestic law.64 In addition, the United States declared the first 27 Articles of the ICCPR to
be non self-executing, preventing the ICCPR from creating a private cause of action in U.S.
courts.65 The United States has also denied an alternative method of protection by failing to
59

73 F.3d 535 (4th Cir. 1996).
Elizabeth Keyes of the Domestic Worker & Trafficked Persons Project CASA of Maryland, Testimony given at the InterAmerican Commission for Human Rights (Oct. 14, 2005).
61
SENATE COMM. ON FOREIGN RELATIONS REPORT ON THE INTERNATIONAL COVENANT OF CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS, S. REP.
NO. 102-23, at 3-4 (1992), reprinted in 31 I. L. M. 645 (1992) [hereinafter S. COMM. REP.]
62
UNITED NATIONS, OFFICE OF THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, 4. International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights, New York 16 December, 1966, Ratifications and Reservations (Last update 7 October 2005), at
http://www.ohchr.org/english/countries/ratification/4.htm.
63
S. COMM. REP., at 15.
64
UNITED NATIONS, OFFICE OF THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, supra note 67.
65
S. COMM. REP., at 19; See Leienbach v. Williamson, No. 05-3224, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23030, at *5 (3rd Cir. Ct. of App.
Sept. 23, 2005); United States v. Duarte-Acero, 296 F.3d 1277, 1282 (11th Cir. 2002).
60

13

ratify the ICCPR’s first Optional Protocol. The preclusion of these types of remedies seems
contrary to the spirit of Article 2 and hinders individuals such as domestic workers in their
quests to attain justice.
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Diplomatic Immunity (Article 2)
32. Diplomatic immunity directly opposes the ICCPR’s Article 2 directive that a domestic
worker whose rights have been violated must have an effective remedy.66 Under diplomatic
immunity, the general rule is that employers protected by immunity are not subject to the
civil, criminal, or administrative jurisdiction of the United States with some minor
exceptions.67 Where a diplomat with full immunity commits a criminal offense against a
domestic worker, “the State Department must request and receive from the employer’s
sending state an express waiver of immunity.”68 In cases of a civil offense, “the State
Department’s official policy is to ‘intervene’ when presented with satisfactory evidence of
civil liability and when the matter was raised unsuccessfully with the diplomat,”69 though
data suggests this avenue is underused.70
33. Administrative and technical staff of diplomats, while enjoying full immunity for criminal
acts, only enjoy civil and administrative immunity for acts performed in “the course of their
duties.”71 While acts related to employment of domestic workers probably do not fall within
the “course of their duties” requirement for immunity, two obstacles still remain for domestic
workers seeking redress against these types of limited immunity workers. First, many
domestic workers may misunderstand the scope of diplomatic immunity, thinking full
immunity extends to all officials.72 Consequently, they may be reluctant to bring forth any
claim. Second, “even if a civil judgment is entered against an employer with limited
immunity, execution of that judgment may be difficult, as the majority of the employer’s
assets are often abroad.”73
34. For the domestic worker, diplomatic immunity means two things. First, if an employer
protected by diplomatic immunity violates a worker’s rights, the worker has no recourse
against him. Second, if her employer does recognize her rights, say to join a union, that right
is basically rendered meaningless because if the domestic worker later seeks to enforce a
union-obtained right, she will find that she cannot effectively do so.
35. In addition to diplomatic immunity, the U.S. courts’ interpretation of the commercial activity
exception contained in Article 31(c) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations74
provides another barrier to domestic workers’ realization of effective remedies. The
exception to immunity exists for “any professional or commercial activity exercised by the

66

ICCPR, Article 2(3)(a).
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 34-35.
68
Id.
69
Id. at 35.
70
A 2001 study reported that only one civil case came to the attention of the State Department who, rather than request a waiver
of immunity, submitted a statement supporting it. Id.
71
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 35 (citing Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Article 37(2)).
72
CASA of Maryland, supra note 63, at 3.
73
Hidden in the Home, Human Rights Watch Report, at 35.
74
Apr. 18, 1961, 23 U.S.T. 3227,T.I.A.S. No. 7502, 500 U.N.T.S. 96.
67

14

diplomatic agent in the receiving State outside his official functions.”75 While the
Convention does not define “commercial activity,” the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for the
United States ruled in Tabion v. Mufti that “commercial activity” includes only activities
engaged in for personal profit, explicitly stating that domestic workers are not covered.76
The effect of Tabion is to deny domestic workers any claim in the civil justice system should
their employer be a diplomat.
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Immigration Status
36. The domestic worker’s visa status is tied to her employment. For a domestic worker who
complains of a violation and either voluntarily leaves or is involuntarily fired for reporting a
violation, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
(USCIS) determines whether she may remain in the United States to seek a remedy. It is
solely up to the discretion of USCIS to allow the domestic worker to remain within the
United States through the completion of her suit; there is no special visa option that will
allow her to do so.77 Additionally, even if USCIS does allow the domestic worker to stay, it
could still deny her work authorization.78 If USCIS discovers an undocumented worker’s
status, she will be deported. Under Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc. v. National labor
Relations Board, an employer can inquire into the immigration status of an employee who
sues them.79
37. The identities of domestic workers are also implicated in their ability to seek and obtain
effective remedies. Because most domestic workers are migrant women, their immigration
status is exploited by employers and not protected by the State, resulting in ineffective access
to remedies. According to one report, many domestic workers cited “fear that employers
would report them to USCIS and that they would subsequently be removed from the United
States” as a major reason for not reporting human rights violations. This fear is not
groundless as U.S. laws fail to protect either documented or undocumented domestic
workers. Additionally, Hoffman Plastic creates a disincentive for undocumented workers to
report violations.80
38. Though the USCIS can exercise its discretion in allowing domestic workers to remain in the
United States to pursue remedies, whether the USCIS actually exercises that discretion
“‘varies greatly between different District Directors at the regional offices.’”81 Moreover,
when the USCIS does choose to exercise that discretion, “it must do so through procedures
not specifically designed for victims of human rights abuses.”82 If USCIS allows the
75

U.S.T. 3227, at 3241.
73 F.3d 535 (4th Cir. 1996). Tabion was a domestic worker employed by a diplomat. She brought suit complaining of breach
of contract, intentional misrepresentations in employment, false imprisonment, violations of 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 1981, 1985(3), and
violations of the FLSA, after being subjected to low pay and long hours. The lower court found that her employer was protected
by diplomatic immunity because the commercial activity exception to immunity as set forth in the Vienna Convention on
Diplomatic Relations did not apply to the employment relationship. On appeal, that finding was affirmed.
77
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 33.
78
Id.
79
535 U.S. 137 (2002).
80
The decision has created a “chilling effect” as “undocumented workers. . .fear [an] inquiry [into their immigration status] will
negatively affect themselves, their friends, or their family.” Kathryn A. Dittrick, Migrant Workers’ Right to Organize, 10,
available at http://www.humanrightsadvocates.org/images/Kate'sMigrantWorkerReport.doc.
81
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 33.
82
Id.

76

15

domestic worker to remain in the United States, but denies her work authorization, she will
be unable to afford to remain in the United States. Not only does the worker in that position
lack income because she cannot legally obtain a job, but, because of her undocumented alien
status, “she is not eligible for federal public benefits, including welfare, health, and
unemployment benefits, public or assisted housing, and food assistance.”83
Barrier to Effective Remedies: Practical Obstacles
39. The private nature of domestic work, the exclusion of domestic workers from the public
sphere by overbearing employers, and personal challenges (cultural, social, language
barriers) domestic workers face, make enforcing the rights of the ICCPR especially difficult.
But this difficulty should not be used as an excuse. Unfortunately, those in charge of
monitoring domestic workers are loathe to enter into the private sphere of domestic work,84
and these attitudinal impediments lead to a complete failure by governmental agencies to
respond to the abuses.
40. The private nature of domestic work also creates a problem with resources. To ensure
compliance in workplaces like individual homes where only one worker may be affected,
additional resources are necessary.85 Unlike factories where workers are consolidated into
one workspace, thus requiring only one trip to one location by one enforcement official or
team, domestic workers are spread among thousands of workspaces requiring many more
trips to many more locations by many more enforcement officials. But again, this cannot act
as an excuse, as the Committee has recognized: “even in times of severe resources
constraints whether caused by a process of adjustment, of economic recession, or by other
factors the vulnerable members of society can and indeed must be protected by the adoption
of relatively low-cost targeted programmes.”86
41. In addition to failure to monitor domestic work because of its private nature, domestic
workers point to other practical reasons for not reporting violations, including “lack of
knowledge of the U.S. legal system, exacerbated by social and cultural isolation and fear of
retaliation by politically powerful employers against their families in their countries of
origin.”87 These fears point to two problems: (1) a lack of knowledge about rights and
remedies; and (2) a lack of social support networks and organizations, both of which
discourage workers from reporting violations.

RECOMMENDATIONS
1. Already existing domestic laws that protect other workers, like the Fair Labor Standards Act,
National Labor Relations Act, and Title VII should be expanded to cover the rights of

83

Id.
For example, a U.S. immigration officer remarked, “Every employer and domestic worker ought to have the flexibility to work
out their own best arrangement without worrying about the government of the courts invading people’s private lives.” Id.
85
Graunke, supra note 30, at 186.
86
HRC, General Comment 3, Article 2 Implementation at the national level (Thirteenth session, 1981), Compilation of General
Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 4 (1994).
87
Hidden in the Home, supra note 2, at 32.
84

16

domestic workers. Exclusion of domestic workers from laws reinforces the societal attitude
that domestic workers are somehow inferior individuals and employees.
2. Laws which should protect domestic workers must be enforced in order to actually provide
that protection in practice. This would require the United States to enforce laws like the
federal minimum wage, and change its policies to include domestic workers in the
enforcement regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.88 Without action by the
government, employers are able to continue to abuse domestic workers with impunity.
3. There are a number of approaches the United States could take to resolve the re-victimization
of domestic workers through denial of Article 2 rights. Visa reform is one option. First, a
special visa system could be used to automatically grant domestic workers who bring
forward a formal complaint of human rights violations a visa and work authorization. Such a
system is already in place for victims of trafficking and other criminal conduct (U and T
visas) and should be expanded to protect domestic workers facing other types of abuse.89
4. Better access to social services would provide domestic workers with opportunities to receive
accurate information, correct misconceptions created by employers, and file complaints about
rights violations. Social services could also serve as a social support network and a contact if
something goes wrong. In order for domestic workers to seek remedies for their abuses, they
must feel like there is a legitimate alternative to staying in the abusive home. Resources like
shelters and legal aid must be made available to domestic workers.
5. The United States must address the problems posed by claims of diplomatic immunity in the
cases of domestic workers who have been abused or exploited by their employers. For
example, in those cases with legal evidence of exploitation and abuse, the U.S. government
should request a waiver of immunity from the diplomat’s home country to allow the domestic
worker to seek remedy through the courts.
6. Finally, the United States should adopt the ICCPR Optional Protocol to allow for individual
reporting to the Human Rights Commission.

88

The Code of Federal Regulations states that “[a]s a matter of policy, individuals who, in their own residences, privately employ
persons for the purpose of performing for the benefit of such individuals what are commonly regarded as ordinary domestic
household tasks. . .shall not be subject to the requirements of [OSHA] with respect to such employment.” 29 C.F.R. § 1975.6
(2005). Domestic employees are ‘working men and women in the nation’ and as such should be protected under the Act. Their
work, which involves exposure to potentially dangerous items such as cleaning chemicals, knives, and gas stoves is not innately
safe and healthful as to make the Act unnecessary. See Katharine Silbaugh, Turning Labor into Love: Housework and the Law,
91 NW. U. L. REV. 1, 77 (Fall 1996). The tasks performed by domestic workers, such as cooking, cleaning, and child care, are the
same tasks performed by other workers covered by the Act. Though enforcement of OSHA may be more difficult in the private
setting of domestic work, “It is not enough to say that the enforcement of the Act would be too difficult because of the job site;
[the Act] regulates the working conditions of other people who enter private homes on a regular basis.” Katharine Silbaugh,
Turning Labor into Love: Housework and the Law, 91 NW. U. L. REV. 1, 77 (Fall 1996).
89
For example, Congress should establish a new visa category for undocumented workers who suffer violations of their right to
organize and bargain collectively, and the USCIS should exercise discretionary authority to allow then to remain in the United
States.” Lance Compa, Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States: The Gap Between ideals and Practice, in
WORKERS’ RIGHTS AS HUMAN RIGHTS 23, 51 (ed. James A. Gross, Cornell University 2003).

17

This report is submitted by the following nongovernmental organizations:
Global Rights
University of North Carolina Law School, Human Rights Policy Clinic

18

 

 

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