The invisible foreign domestic worker

Earlier this summer, a video of a 68-year old Cypriot man physically abusing a 31-year old foreign domestic worker he was employing, was released to the press. Many pointed to the parallels between this violent behaviour and the murders of the five foreign women and two of their daughters last summer. Both instances of violence are shocking in their intensity. Yet, to those familiar with the working and living conditions of foreign domestic workers, the fact that these women are victims of abuse while in Cyprus was hardly unforeseen.

The surprise among many Cypriots about the level of vulnerability experienced by the women we have outsourced our cleaning, cooking and caring responsibilities to is indicative of the attention society has paid, and the protection it has afforded, to them. Making exactly this point in her 2019 report on foreign domestic workers, the Ombudsman held no punches. She concluded that their inadequate protection has ‘been internalised by the general public as something “natural” and necessary.’ As a result, she continued, ‘the systematic violation of their labour rights, and many times their fundamental human rights, becomes acceptable – to the point of being invisible – even to those employers who have no such intention.’

This article attempts to make foreign domestic workers a bit less invisible. In 2019-20, Dr Natalie Alkiviadou and I conducted research funded by the London School of Economics Hellenic Observatory on the working and living conditions of this category of workers in Cyprus. It transpired that entering the Republic on a foreign domestic worker visa is a relatively easy task; what comes after, less so.  

All foreign domestic workers must sign a standard employment contract, which unlike other such documents, has not been prepared by the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance, but by the Civil Registry and Migration Department. Perhaps unsurprising in light of its origins, the employment contract is clear on almost nothing – it does not include a list of employment duties, does not mention the payment of overtime, and only refers in the most general terms to the dispute settlement procedure between employer and employee. However, to its credit, it is clear on one thing: it unambiguously states that a foreign domestic worker should work for seven hours, six days of the week, for a weekly total of 42 hours. Yet, the letter of the law in no way reflects reality. Of the 150 foreign domestic workers who participated in our research, only two stated that they work for 42 hours per week. On average, participants reported working for 58 hours – almost two additional full working days per week – and one in five replied that they are working for more than 70 hours, a number that is at times more than twice what they are contractually obligated to work.

Similarly problematic employment practices have been recorded in relation to the payment of domestic workers’ salaries. 32% of respondents stated that they have not always gotten paid for work they did, and to a different question, the same percentage answered that they are not always paid on time. Perhaps most worrying is the fact that 34% stated that they do not get paid extra if they work beyond the hours that the contract provides. An additional staggering 58% does not even know how many hours they are contractually expected to work.

These statistics show a very basic lack of understanding on behalf of foreign domestic workers of the rights they have under the employment contract and the ways in which they can protect themselves. This is confirmed through a series of additional questions, the answers to which reveal that almost 60% of respondents either did not understand the terms of their contract, or do not remember whether they understood them.

Even those who are familiar with their rights have a hard time enforcing them. In a series of follow-up interviews with 21 respondents, almost all admitted that they would never complain to their employer because they are afraid that they would lose their job, and consequently the right to legally reside in the country. Further evidence of the power imbalance between employers and employees is provided by the fact that all of those that protested against abusive employment practices to their employers were either shouted at, or calmly told that this is how things are and how they will remain. This is not to say that every person employing a foreign domestic worker in Cyprus is a bad employer; nonetheless, those who do adopt abusive employment practices are in no way restrained or sanctioned by the law.

Foreign domestic workers can technically complain about such practices to the Department of Labour Relations, but generally don’t, because of their deep distrust towards the state’s authorities. This is not only the case in relation to employment disputes, but also with regard to instances where physical or sexual violence has been used against them. Two out of the 21 interviewees stated that they were either victims, or afraid that they would imminently become victims, of sexual violence (with many more describing instances of verbal abuse), yet none has reported these to the police. In fact, of the 150 participants who completed the questionnaire, 111 – three in four – replied that they would not go to the police if they suffered physical or sexual abuse.

The vulnerability of foreign domestic workers is due to several factors: their gender, the type of work they do (essential, yet unappreciated) and the places they work (other people’s homes that are virtually impossible to regulate and police). An additional cause of their vulnerability, however, stems from the fact that they are here on a precarious domestic worker’s visa, which makes it impossible to acquire permanent residency, irrespective of the number of years they have been working in the Republic. (Migrants who are not on a domestic worker’s visa are typically eligible for permanent residence after being employed for six years in the country). Since in order for someone to apply for family reunification she must prove that she has reasonable prospects of acquiring permanent residency, the law prevents foreign domestic workers, and in particular the 79% of them who are mothers, from bringing their children to Cyprus and building a less precarious, more stable and secure life. 

Much can and must be done to improve the working and living conditions of foreign domestic workers. The Republic should sign and ratify the 2011 ILO Convention Concerning Decent Working Conditions for Domestic Workers, revise the standard employment contract, and reconsider state policies, such as those relating to their permanent residency. Equally important, however, is that as a society, we must stop making foreign domestic workers invisible. Only by becoming more aware of the lived reality of the women who play such a vital and intimate role in the lives of many of us will we start improving their own.

Dr Nasia Hadjigeorgiou is an Assistant Professor of Transitional Justice and Human Rights at UCLan Cyprus. You can find out more about her research here.

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