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Domestic workers: a ‘vilely corrupt system’

Live-in domestic workers wages are between €320 and €400 a month

Their contracts stipulate a salary of between €320 and €400 a month net, if they live with their employer, and a six-day working week. They cannot change their employer without obtaining a release form – from the very employer they want to leave.

Welcome to the world of the domestic worker.

That there are circles involved in illegal activity surrounding their employment and even sexual exploitation is an open secret.

Bringing in domestic workers – mostly women – dates back to the 1990s, first from the Philippines, then India and Sri Lanka and later Vietnam and Nepal. According to the head of Kisa, the migrant support group, Doros Polykarpou, the law has barely moved an inch in securing them more rights in nearly 30 years.

Kisa’s Doros Polycarpou

The spotlight has shone on the treatment of domestic workers and how they live their lives since the arrest of serial murderer Nicos Metaxas earlier this year. Four of the five foreign women, four of them domestic workers, and two children murdered by the army officer were reported missing as far back as 2016 but police, it appears, failed to investigate the reports thoroughly. As a result, the chance to prevent him taking more victims was lost.

Since 2017 until the end of June 2019, a total of 2,745 reports have been filed to police over missing domestic workers.

According to police spokesman Christos Andreou, of these, 1,908 have either been located by officers or have departed the country.

“Therefore the true number of missing domestic workers is 837,” he told the Sunday Mail.

Those still missing are likely to have either left the government-controlled areas and gone to the north or remained here but abandoned their employer and moved to a different address – a widespread practice, stakeholders say. Many of those who have been located are women who left their employer illegally.

Why do they leave?

Head of the private employment agencies association Andreas Tsangarides puts it down to huge circles involved in encouraging domestic workers to leave their legal employer and work elsewhere, sometimes with more than one job, renting out flats with several other domestic workers as opposed to the common live-in arrangement with their legal employer.

The consequences of this means there are times when elderly people who have paid €2,500 in fees and other expenses to bring in a helper are left unaided, abandoned by their carer and losing an €850 guarantee.

Tsangarides told the Sunday Mail that although live-in domestic worker wages are between €320 and €400, many of them somehow manage to transfer up to €1,000 abroad every month – proof, he says, that these women are lured by the prospect of more money to abandon their legal obligations.

He alleges there are people with their hands dirty in government departments and even the police that turn a blind eye. Former Interior Minister Eleni Mavrou, who also heads the House interior committee, recently said that police are failing to act.

Though domestic workers need to be protected from their employers, the opposite is also true she argued.

“If a domestic worker comes to Cyprus to look after an elderly or a disabled person and suddenly leaves her place of work then this creates a social problem. From my experience (as former interior minister), I can tell you that the police don’t anything.”

The police say that they are aware the phenomenon exists and insist they investigate when they have information.

“This is a subject that troubles people and unfortunately the government, police and ministers don’t show necessary interest. No one moves a finger and this leaves people to suffer,” Tsangarides told the Sunday Mail.

All of this misses the most obvious point. If domestic workers were paid better and given more humane working weeks, why would they leave?

Head of the Housemaids’ Association Louis Koutroukides outlines that not only are domestic workers paid little, they’re also overworked. “They’re up at 6am, cleaning, looking after the elderly, and they work until 11pm.”

Louis Koutroukides, the head of the Housemaids’ Association

Then there is the ‘sharing’ between family members. Clean the house, clean the windows of the sister’s house, do some sweeping and mopping, bathe the grandmother, water the garden…the list goes on.

Tsangarides says that Israel, for instance, pays €800 per month, which attracts domestic workers from India, a ‘market’ Cyprus is now struggling to find workers from because of the clearly better rates. The Sunday Mail could not independently verify if this is true.

But he charges that a change in policy brought about former Interior Minister Neoklis Sylikiotis is to blame. Sylikiotis held the post for a year under the Tassos Papadopoulos government between 2006 and 2007 and under the Akel government between 2008 and 2012.

Tsangarides says that prior to Sylikiotis, whenever a domestic worker was caught breaking her contract – leaving her employer for instance – she would be deported. The minister found the practice racist and banned it. With the fear of deportation gone, increasing numbers of domestic workers felt free to leave their employers and work elsewhere illegally.

Kisa’s Polykarpou retorts it is not so clear cut and calls for a deeper look into the cause of the problem. For starters the system itself means these women are doomed to exploitation. One of these kinds of exploitation being sexual.

“Almost all agents involved in bringing domestic workers from abroad have a so-called reception centre which to us, resemble holding cells.

“They leave the women in a room, barely feed them, use them for a day,” whether it be for cleaning services or sexual ones. But one doesn’t even need to look too far for these hidden cells he says.

“If someone is brave enough, then they can go to Solomos square or Ohi in Nicosia, the Limassol molos area, Finikoudes in Larnaca, on a Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning to witness what’s going on,” Tsangarides says.

“Women stand there and write out the number 10 or 15 in the palm of their hand and show it to passers-by, indicating their hourly rates. It’s out in the open. And if the police were to take the area around Ohi and Ledra, they could fill up 10 buses with women.”

Koutroukides suggests this may not be a result of force or illegal circles but women willingly choosing to sell sex. He also adds the all too common practice of employers being the ones to sexually exploit their domestic workers with them being powerless to fight back.

“Only a few days ago, a Vietnamese woman came to me saying she wanted to leave her employer. When I asked her why she said ‘papou (grandfather) touches me’. I spoke to the grandfather to tell him to stop. He continued and I asked her to record him so as to have evidence. When we went to report him, we were told that obtaining footage without consent is illegal!”

The government, stung by the international media scrutiny of the women’s working and living conditions in the wake of the Metaxas case, said there is a rigorous procedure to examine complaints filed at the labour relations office. As far as sexual harassment is concerned, every worker has the right to submit a complaint and the equality legislation affords full protection to the complainant.

What Polykarpou however outlines is that often-times, agents allegedly pose as potential saviours to the domestic workers. They tell women if they’re sexually harassed to tell the agents because anyone else will just ignore them. Nonetheless, agents often do nothing to help the women, he alleges.

But this is not the end of all the circles of illegal activity. Another is that domestic workers are encouraged to apply for asylum. Polykarpou, Tsangarides and Koutroukides all agree there is no reason for them to do so.

For one, Koutroukides outlines that until the application is processed, this guarantees the domestic workers time in Cyprus to work with whatever employers they find and make money, while also being exempt from detention under the refugee law, unless, amongst other exemptions, they pose a risk to national security or public order.

Polykarpou says that these applications for asylum can be rejected in minutes but are deliberately kept on file so lawyers can keep asking for money and women can continue to remain in the country until applications are examined.

It is of course hard to prove. Applications for asylum in Cyprus increased by 70 per cent in 2018 and the sheer numbers can explain the delay, but Polykarpou suggests this is deliberate.

Deliberate or not, the independent police watchdog is expected in the coming weeks to complete the findings of the probe in the way police handled the disappearance of the women and two children who were killed by Metaxas. These will be used to provide a better direction for police, Christou says.

Polykarpou’s priorities are more far reaching.

“This will also hopefully be the beginning of the end of a vilely corrupt system, rotten from within.”

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