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OAS Roundtable Highlights the Need to Articulate and Move Forward in the Fight against Domestic Servitude in the Region

  June 25, 2013

The Organization of American States (OAS) today brought together a panel of experts, authorities and human rights activists to analyze the characteristics of domestic servitude in the Americas and recognize the importance of increasing regional engagement to prevent and combat this scourge, which the ILO defines as a form of human trafficking that occurs in particular circumstances: informal work in a private home, which creates unique vulnerabilities for victims and that lends itself to exploitation.

The 52nd OAS Policy Roundtable was opened by the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), Carmen Moreno, who, on behalf of Secretary General José Miguel Insulza welcomed the participants and highlighted the importance of the event in the international context. “In every country, slavery still exists in multiple forms, but none is as prevalent as domestic servitude,” she said, and linked it with the great concern in the region over the issue of trafficking in persons.

“This roundtable will allow us to begin generating a base of knowledge for the formulation of public policy in multiple fields, including women’s rights and gender-based discrimination and violence, the valuation and recognition of domestic workers, their labor rights, labor migration and the fight against labor exploitation and trafficking in persons.” Ambassador Moreno added that the problem of domestic servitude “requires a multi-sectoral and integrated response that incorporates the perspectives of a variety of sectors – the international community, governments, workers and civil society.”

Ambassador Luis C. de Baca, Ambassador-at-large and Principal Advisor of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons of the United States Department of State, alluded to the differences between the concepts of domestic servitude, exploitation, trafficking and slavery, and clarified that to understand them it is necessary to consider the cases of the victims. "It is the lives of the workers who define these categories, and not our categories that define their lives," he said. Modern slavery and forced labor, he continued, are currently happening in every capital of the Americas, but in each place it has unique characteristics that make categorization difficult.

In his presentation, Ambassador De Baca called for internationally unity against this scourge. "The fight against modern slavery must involve the entire Hemisphere as it is in the national interest of every country and in the interest of a shared culture of freedom in the Americas. It is a crime that undermines the rule of law, that destroys our families and communities, stifles the potential of people, and corrupts international markets and the supply chains that our nations rely on," he said, and reiterated the commitment of the U.S. government to eradicate this crime.

The panel discussion was moderated by Maurice Middleberg, Executive Director of the organization “Free the Slaves,” dedicated to combating the problem, and an international expert on social justice, who commended the OAS for highlighting an issue of "great importance to the world and the region," and focused the debate on which strategies should be followed to prevent the spread of this crime, how to help victims and how to achieve their freedom.

The Deputy Director of the Washington office of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Erick J. Zeballos, noted that "despite the contribution that domestic workers make to our societies, their work is undervalued, unprotected and poorly regulated." Often such workers "receive lower wages, have excessive working hours, are not entitled to a break, are exposed to mental, physical and sexual abuses and their liberties are undermined, especially their freedom of movement,” he added.

Zeballos referred to the adoption of Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which took place in June 2011 and called it "a key, historic step that for the first time, establishes a set of basic rules that serve the specific problems of these workers. " The document, he said, "recognizes that domestic workers, like all workers, are entitled to be respected, to benefit from basic principles and minimum protection." He reported that the Convention provides mechanisms that allow states to work on the terms and conditions for fair employment, including the requirement of an employment contract; to prevent discrimination; to regulate working hours and remuneration; to provide mechanisms for security and health: access to basic social security: the recognition of their rights, and mechanisms for conflict resolution.

AS of today, ILO Convention 189 has been ratified by eight states, four of them are from Latin America - Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay – which the representative of the ILO noted as a sign of political will in the region to address the issue holistically and "in the framework of the commitments to promote social justice."

The Program Director of the organization "Free the Slaves", Karen Stauss, spoke of the work done by the organization to free people who have been victims of slavery, and referred to the community programs, assistance to survivors, awareness and prevention programs, and protection of anti-slavery activists that it carries out in countries like Haiti, India, Ghana, Brazil, Nepal, Congo and the United Kingdom. Stauss referred specifically to the group’s initiatives to reduce vulnerability. "Communities are taking ownership of their problems and exploring opportunities to prevent members from becoming slaves, for example they carry out agricultural projects and educational projects that help mitigate the need to send their children to seek better opportunities," she said, and made a call for a joint effort between governments, civil society and the community to address the problem.

Marcelina Bautista, President and Regional Coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN) presented the details of the campaign “For Decent Work: Put Your Gloves on for the Rights of Domestic Workers," which seeks to create social awareness about the problem affecting domestic workers, and urges governments in Latin America to ratify ILO Convention 189. Bautista stressed the contribution made by domestic workers to the economies of the region, the importance of visibility and recognition of their work and the need to expand and protect their rights, because "thanks to the work that we do, many people can leave their homes to meet their goals and contribute to the global economy," she said.

The panel closed with a series of questions and answers and the testimony of Josefa Condori Quispe a former maid who, after being victim of slavery, founded the group "Yanapanakusun" to address the root causes of slavery in Peru. Condori mentioned the abuses suffered by women and girls in the country and the need to create opportunities for them and also outlined the development of programs she promotes for young survivors of slavery, providing medical treatment, education, counseling and legal assistance

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

The B-roll of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-250/13