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Booklet informs domestic workers of their rights

A Geneva lawyer has launched a booklet which aims to end the silent abuse of foreign domestic staff in Switzerland. It outlines not only the rights of employees, but also the obligations of employers.

The booklet - "Know Your Rights - A Legal Guide for Household Employees in Switzerland", is the work of Jean-Pierre Garbade, a human rights lawyer who has handled many industrial tribunals involving Filipino domestic workers.

"We want to show that these people have rights, that they aren't slaves," Garbade told swissinfo.

"We not only want to tell employees what these rights are, but also how to go about defending them," he said.

The easy-to-use manual covers issues such as minimum salary rates, holidays and days off, overtime work, sick leave, social security and insurance plans, and how to file claims or complaints against employers. It also includes addresses of organisations that can be contacted in an emergency.

When it was originally launched in 1998, the booklet was only available in English. Now it has been updated and published in Spanish and French.

There are as many as 5,000 Filipino domestic workers - both documented and undocumented - in Switzerland. There are thousands more from Latin America and West Africa. One estimate put the number of Spanish-speaking domestics in Switzerland at 18,000.

These workers are mostly women who often work long hours for little money as maids in the homes of diplomats or businessmen. Many of them are not officially registered, leaving them open to all kinds of abuse.

But the 80-page booklet stresses that, even if a domestic employee does not have a work or residence permit, she is still entitled to the same protection under Swiss law as any other worker. "They have absolutely the same rights - salary, overtime pay, social security, family allowance. Exactly the same," Garbade explains.

Despite this, many maids and nannies are in a vulnerable position because they know that if they file a complaint against their employer, they will be out of a job.

"These rights are really difficult to enforce," says Ildefonso Bagasao, co-chairman of the Geneva Forum for Philippine Concerns, which produced the guide.

"Somebody in desperate need of a job, facing a lot of competition, has to think carefully before filing a complaint against their employer, because they know they'll be out of a job," he told swissinfo.

"The Swiss have a passion for obeying the laws and we are trying to inform people what their rights and obligations are. We would like our book to maintain a certain order in society," Bagasao adds.

Not only are the authors trying to appeal to the Swiss love of law and order, but also to remind them that domestic helpers are good for the economy. "We have to re-evaluate the work of domestics," Jean-Pierre Garbade says.

"It should be seen not only as a job with the same rights as any other, but also as one that is extremely important for the economy of the whole country, as it allows families to earn two incomes, and allows couples to go out together more often," he says.

by Roy Probert

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