By Evie Andreou
THE state turns a blind eye to the sexual abuse and violence that female domestic workers face in Cyprus, the head of a women’s rights group said yesterday, demanding that measures are taken for their protection and support.
Josie Christodoulou, policy coordinator at the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies (MIGS) was the keynote speaker at the conference on sexual violence against domestic workers co-hosted with the Cyprus University of Technology as part of the ‘Commun-AID’ programme that aims to empower migrant workers to respond to sexual abuse through community-based interventions.
Christodoulou said that even though domestic workers are visible in our every day lives and a large part of our economy is built around them, they are invisible when it comes to policies, legislations and their rights.
“Research studies show that worldwide domestic workers are victims of violence, physical, verbal, psychological or sexual and in Cyprus what makes them especially vulnerable to violence and exploitation is the that most of them live and work at the house of their employers,” she said.
Commissioner for Administration and Human Rights, Eliza Savvidou, said that we have failed to apply the law on fighting discrimination at the workplace for domestic workers because immigration control comes before equal treatment of workers.
The situation for migrant workers is far from perfect and, according to Savvidou, laws and regulations concerning these workers favour exploitation of domestic workers and give fertile ground for their physical abuse, part of which is sexual abuse.
She said that there are around 30,000 domestic workers in Cyprus, mostly women, with very low salaries of €314 per month, set by law.
“The content of the contracts they sign, which they sign in a language they usually don’t understand, are unacceptable by labour laws,” Savvidou said.
She added that they are not given the ability to organise collectively, strike or demand better work conditions and they face deportation if they report a dispute or sexual harassment, while being barred from changing employers during an investigation by the authorities.
“The issue of sexual harassment is one of the ‘darkest’ offenses because they are difficult to report and it is even more difficult to prove,” Savvidou said.
She said that even though the law on gender equality, including sexual harassment in the workplace, allows three ways to claim their rights – go to court, report to the Labour Ministry inspectors or the ombudswoman’s office – domestic workers are only given one of the three choices, to report to the inspectors, while the head of the Immigration service has the final say.
Savvidou said that in the case of sexual harassment by a third person, the victim has to report to the police and if she cannot prove the harassment, her change of employer request is denied and she is arrested for deportation.
If the registered employer is the wife of a household and the husband or son do the harassment then the Labour ministry does not interfere.
“In the best case, the victim that reported sexual harassment to the work equality inspector, she can get permission to change employer without her being considered a gender discrimination victim and without the employer being punished,” Savvidou said.