Overseas domestic workers are routinely subjected to abuses such as withdrawal of pay – victims, in part of their immigration status.
‘[The employers] did not give me [enough] to eat. Only once a day, limited food. I was hungry. That is why I said I made a sacrifice: you need to work, you sacrifice everything’. This is what Geraldine (not her real name), a domestic worker, said to me in one of the interviews for a study I conducted on migrant domestic workers in the UK. People need to work, and in human rights law and theory it is commonly said that everyone has a human right to work. What does it mean to have a right to work when some in our society have to sacrifice so much in order to work?
It is no surprise that the right to work features prominently in human rights law. Work promotes important values. People feel dignified when they work because they earn income that helps them meet their needs and desires. Work also promotes people’s self-fulfillment. Society values working people, and discredits the idle. Work promotes social inclusion, while unemployment has a stigma attached to it. People form friendships and other social relations at work. It is an important component in people’s identity; this is why one of the first questions that we ask when we meet someone is what work they do. In protecting work as a human right, the international community has recognised the value of work.
But the right to work is also very often conditional upon citizenship as legal status, rather than one’s status as a human being: only a country’s nationals or certain categories of migrants have a legal right to work. Immigration law sets restrictions to the universality of the human right.