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Bolivian immigrants Luis, left, looks at a dress as his wife Sonia and niece Ana, right, sew clothes in their house, at the Bras neighbourhood of Sao Paulo August 19, 2013. In Sao Paulo, the country's business centre, the number of immigrants from other South American countries more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 to over 23,000, according to the Brazilian statistics agency IBGE. However, unofficial estimates by city officials put the number at between 200,000 and 400,000. Alarmed by soaring reports of labor abuses as the migrants flowed in, Brazilian officials in 2009 tried to bring immigrants out of the shadows by signing a regional agreement that made it easier for many of them to receive work visas.© Nacho Doce / Reuters/Reuters

The diplomatic row between India and the U.S. over the stripsearch of an Indian diplomat has put the spotlight on the plight of underpaid domestic workers who often work lengthy hours and in poor conditions. The Indian-born maid is reported to have been paid $3.31 an hour by the diplomat – below New York State's minimum wage of $7.25. Taking into account the extra hours worked by the maid, the hourly salary was likely even less.

There are an estimated 50 million domestic workers worldwide – mainly women. While working conditions for them remain grim in many countries, there are positive signs as legal protections have increased in leaps and bounds over the last two years.

The Globe and Mail spoke to Human Rights Watch's Jo Becker about the global picture – and started by asking her about the ongoing diplomatic row.

"I think the bottom line is that the exploitation of the domestic worker – and abuses against millions of other domestic workers around the world – are being completely eclipsed here with the focus on the diplomat. It's understandable that people are shocked by the stripsearch. Even in the U.S., where it's a routine policing practice, it's a humiliating experience and it's not surprising that people in India are shocked by it," said Ms. Becker.

"The diplomat was paying this domestic worker a fraction of what she promised and what was entitled to her under New York law."

How unusual is this kind of case in the U.S. context for a domestic worker?

"It's pretty unusual. The State Department has acknowledged that they've received dozens of allegations of abuse by diplomats over the years including officials working at the World Bank and international financial institutions.

"There is a GAO [U.S. Government Accountability Office] report from 2008 that identifies 42 cases of abuse by diplomats over a eight-year period and they said that the actual number was probably far higher.

"But many cases are never reported because the victims are too frightened to complain. They feel they can't afford to lose their job. The A-3 visas that many of these [domestic workers] have is tied specifically to their employer. So if they leave that job because of abuse they have no options – they can't get other employment and they have to leave the country."

When you're talking about abuse – is it poor pay, poor working conditions, long working hours, or is it something more?

"In this case what's been alleged is underpayment and long working hours. But there are many other cases where diplomats have been accused of slave-like conditions, locking domestic workers in the home, not allowing them to leave, physical [and] sexual abuse.

"There's a case a few years ago of a Kuwaiti diplomat that was accused by his domestic worker of raping her repeatedly. There's another case where a domestic worker for a former Philippine ambassador said she was forced to work 126 hours a week without pay."

In terms of how these cases unfold – have there been instances where diplomats have been convicted and had to go to jail in the U.S. over similar cases?

"In this case, the [Indian] diplomat was a consular official, which means that she has just limited immunity – as opposed to diplomats working for the United Nations that would have greater level of immunity.

"There have been a few cases where former employees have filed civil suits in U.S. courts. In some cases, they've been awarded judgments that have never been paid because the diplomats go back to their home country."

The Indian maid in this case has more rights in the U.S. than she would enjoy or have access to in India – and that would go for many domestic workers who work outside their home country. In terms of the global picture, it's pretty dire isn't it?

"Yes, but that doesn't excuse unfair treatment in this country [U.S.] because the treatment in other countries is worse… Of female wage earners, one in 13 globally are domestic workers and many of them migrate from one country to another, and they're doing so because they want to make money to support their families back home. Domestic workers create billions of dollars in remittances for their countries of origin.

"Worldwide, only 30 per cent of domestic workers are covered by the labour laws in their country… So they're basically at their employer's mercy. They have to work whatever hours their employer wants, they have to take the wages their employer is providing, and especially if they're living from their home and family, don't speak the language of the country where they're working – if they experience exploitation and abuse, they often have no place to turn to."

But how much is that changing – because there is a global convention that came in to effect a couple of years ago. Who has signed up to that – and has it had any impact?

"It's starting to. It was adopted in 2011 – it's an ILO [International Labour Organization] convention, the Domestic Workers Convention. It came in to force this past September and it's been ratified by 10 countries – Germany, Italy, South Africa, the Philippines, and a number of Latin American coutnries… "So in those 10 countries, that really helps millions of domestic workers. It ensures they are entitled to a minimum wage, that they have limits on their hours of work, that they get a weekly day off. You know, many domestic workers are expected to work seven days a week.

"So it's really an important move forward."

How does India fit in to all of that chance – is it a laggard or a leader in terms of implementing some of these changes or even signing up to the global convention?

"It's a laggard. It has laws banning domestic work by children, which is positive – that law is not implemented nearly as well as it should.

"Last year, it extended a health insurance scheme to domestic workers and a law that was passed this year to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace also applies to domestic workers.

"So there's been some incremental reform. But not the comprehensive protection that we'd like to see."

If you did have to hold up one country as an example – which one would it be?

"Countries that have really pursued comprehensive laws in the last couple of years: the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina, a lot of the Latin American countries are leaders."

The Philippines is an interesting example. Like India, it is an Asian country. What have they done that's so impressive?

"They were the second country to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention in December of last year and then in January they adopted a comprehensive new law for domestic workers – it requires contracts, an improved minimum wage, it requires social security, public health insurance for domestic workers.

"It also prohibits recruitment fees. There are a lot of domestic workers that go from the Philippines to other countries – so this means that private employment agencies can't charge them outrageous amounts of money to get them jobs in other countries."

It sounds like the last couple of years have represented a sea change in terms of domestic workers protection and rights?

"I would say that's true. There's been a dramatic change in the last couple of years. We have global legal standards for the first time ever and dozens of countries have begun to acknowledge that domestic workers are entitled to equal labour rights and are both revising their national laws to reflect that and also getting on board with this new global convention."

This interview has been edited and condensed

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