The recent account of a young mother in New York who found her two children stabbed to death by the nanny was a chilling reminder that child abuse is a terrifying possibility. For parents who trust the sources of referral in finding a loving, responsible caregiver for their young, the thought that the person they select might harm their child is chilling.
But it happens and it's a growing problem. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2005 there were 46,000 reported cases of child abuse perpetrated by nannies and other caregivers. Not all of those cases result in the death of a child but it is a startling statistic.
At the same time, nannies themselves are often abused by employers.
"She jumped from her balcony and landed on our patio pleading for help. We took her to a women's shelter." I heard this story of a Filipina maid trying to escape abusive treatment when I was in Jordan recently. The woman who recounted this chilling experience said she'd often heard screams from the apartment above hers.
The woman who told me this story has a Filipina nanny, but her nanny's experience and that of the fleeing woman couldn't be more different. One receives a good salary paid on time and regular days off. She is provided decent accommodation and food and is free to leave the apartment whenever she wants. The family includes her in activities. Her passport is hers to keep. The maid desperate for help had no time, no money, no respect and no passport in her possession. She had likely been physically abused as well.
Filipinos constitute "the face of domestic work around the world." Millions of women leave the Philippines in search of jobs as maids and nannies abroad. Often they realize on their first day of work that they have been grossly deceived. Many find themselves in nightmare scenarios constituting modern slavery.
Now global standards to protect domestic workers have been promulgated by the Philippine Senate following a campaign launched by the Visayan Forum Foundation, a Philippine NGO founded to end modern-day slavery and abuse perpetrated among domestic workers. The campaign was launched in June with an event called Walk Free. Over 40,000 supporters from 159 countries gathered to march in Makati City, galvanizing public support for senators to ratify the International Labour Organization's Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, or ILO 189.
"The walk set in motion a national social movement that challenged the prevailing sense of apathy and helplessness with the belief that together, modern slavery can be eliminated within this lifetime," a Walk Free spokesperson said.
In August the Philippines Senate ratified ILO 189 becoming the second country to ratify the convention after Uruguay. It will take effect next year.
ILO 189 sets the first global standards for domestic workers worldwide, most of whom are women and girls. Under the treaty, they will be entitled to weekly days off, limited working hours, and minimum wage and social security coverage. Governments will also be obliged to ensure their freedom from violence and abuse as well as preventing child labor in domestic work. The Domestic Workers Convention also includes specific provisions to protect migrant domestic workers, who are often subjected to deductions from their paychecks to pay recruitment fees. Now they will have to receive a written, enforceable contract in the country of employment. Governments will be required to strengthen international cooperation.
In the U.S., among other regulations, nannies are protected by federal and state laws that give them the right to be paid at the established national minimum wage or more, as well as to overtime pay if they don't live with their employer. They must receive annual wage and tax statements with deductions made clear and agreed to in writing. A workplace must be free from physical and/or sexual abuse and an employer may not keep identity documents such as passports. Additionally, an employer may not use immigration violation as a form of retaliation against a domestic worker.
All these laws -- like those aimed at safeguarding children - whether national or international, must be practiced and upheld if they are to be worth the paper they're written on. But for domestic workers, including nannies, ILO 189 is a good and important step.
Meanwhile, until it takes full effect, women and girls like the one who jumped onto my friend's patio, still suffer abusive conditions, many of them fearing for their lives. One of them could be maid to the woman in the upstairs flat in Amman, who last I heard, had already hired new help.