Blog post by Leda M. Pérez, Universidad del Pacífico (Lima, Peru) and Luisa Feline Freier, Universidad del Pacífico (Lima, Peru). This blog post is based on their paper “Family bonds: Kinship reciprocity, Female Teenage Trafficking, and Domestic Labor Exploitation Peru” published in the Journal of Human Trafficking and available here.


Research suggests connections exist between migration – and particularly forced migration – and criminal forms of exploitation such as human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery. In the case of child trafficking, both the Palermo Protocol and many national anti-trafficking laws stipulate as the only necessary condition that the transfer, reception or retention of the minor results in his or her exploitation – even if that transfer was voluntary. This often is the case in the context of underage rural-to-urban domestic migrant workers across countries in the global south. In this blog post we will discuss this issue generally and then illustrate it in the case of Peru.  


Across the globe, 175 countries are party to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. In Article 3c, the protocol highlights that where minors are concerned, the only condition that is required to consider the capture, transport, transfer, receipt and/or harbouring of a child or adolescent as human trafficking is that any one of these activities be performed with the intent of exploitation – where exploitation “shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (Art. 3a).  


This raises the question of whether domestic work of rural-to-urban migrant children – which is a socially accepted and common practice across many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America – constitutes human trafficking. Given that domestic work is performed in private homes and that most societies and governments consider what happens in homes as a private matter (lest crimes are committed) most countries do not adequately regulate, let alone monitor the rights of domestic workers. While there is some recognition of the connection between internal child trafficking and domestic labour, international research and empirical evidence on this issue remains weak – partly because human trafficking is more commonly associated with forced prostitution and sexual exploitation than with domestic work.  


According to the ILO, in 2012 over 11 million children were employed illegally in domestic work. The vast majority of them being girls and under the age of 14. Based on research in Kenya, Nepal and Peru, the organization highlights that child migrants tend to be more vulnerable to exploitative working conditions than their local counterparts – working longer hours, getting paid less, being denied food more often, being more prone to becoming victims of violence, and likely being unable to leave their employer’s household. According to the same report, the majority of child domestic workers are internal rural-to-urban migrants. Although they don’t confront the same difficulties as international migrant domestic workers – such as lack of legal status and language skills, which are important barriers to be able to ask for help – they are more vulnerable in the sense that their labour exploitation is embedded in historic social structures and thus often socially accepted.  


In the case of Peru, the country’s 1991 Penal Code originally included only victims of sexual exploitation as trafficking victims. However, with the changes introduced to the Penal Code through Law 26309 in 1994, the transportation of anyone under age, or anyone unable to defend him or herself, for the purpose of labour exploitation were criminalized. Law No. 28950 Against Human Trafficking and the Smuggling of Migrants of 2007 reflects the Palermo Protocol and stipulates that where minors are concerned the only necessary condition to consider the capture, transport, transfer, receipt and/or harbouring of a child or adolescent as human trafficking is that any one of these activities be performed with the intent of exploitation.  


Domestic work, on the other hand, as in many other countries, is not adequately regulated in Peru. The Domestic Worker Law of 2003 (No. 27986) marked a significant step forward in terms of recognizing these workers. However, it only provides a fraction of the rights extended to others in formal regimes. For example, domestic workers are not entitled to a basic minimum wage and contracts may exist only as verbal agreements. Moreover, whereas most other workers are entitled to two annual bonuses that reflect a full month’s salary, domestic workers are only entitled to bonuses that reflect half of their monthly wages. In essence, in Peru, domestic workers’ marginal status remains codified by law.  


More than half of domestic workers in Peru are comprised of rural migrants with low educational attainment and few socioeconomic resources. This has to be understood in a context where the number of internal migrants in Peru reached almost a quarter of the total population in 2010, over 70% of work continues to be informal and the state exercises minimal control regarding the implementation of labour rights in general. Until now, it is common that first work experiences begin in childhood or adolescence. Though it is legal to work as of 14 years of age, Peruvian law requires that youth be registered in the corresponding municipality. However, the rate of compliance with this norm is low and thus child workers are often not visible to authorities.  


As regards child rural-to-urban migrant domestic workers, mostly female adolescents migrate to the capital Lima through family ties, or kinship relations, often blurring the lines between family support, or “help”, and labour exploitation. Here, a relative or family friend, commonly referred to as a “godmother” or “godfather”, transport the child to live in a third-party home. Providing “help” in household chores, the “goddaughter” does this in a kind of barter in which higher education and/or room and board may be part of the agreement. There are cases in which the adolescent might receive some kind of pay or “tip” but often there is no regular wage.  


These girls are highly vulnerable due to a variety of cross-sectional factors such as poverty, limited resources, rurality, ethnicity, and gender – oftentimes resulting in exploitive working conditions. Apart from not getting paid, exploitation can include working even more than Peru’s already long workweek of 6 days, or 48 hours, not being allowed to leave the house, and not seldom sexual exploitation, particularly if they live-in with their employers. Although such practices of exploitative domestic labour of under-aged rural-to-urban domestic workers are oftentimes socially acceptedthey nonetheless fall under the category of human trafficking.  


While the majority of countries across the world have at least formally committed to combating trafficking in persons, only 29 countries are parties to Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) of 2011 (intriguingly half of these are located in Latin America and the Caribbean and Peru ratified the Convention in 2018), and few have passed laws on domestic work. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, Peru passed Law 31047 in October, 2020, marking an important victory for paid domestic workers. On its face, this action suggests a willingness to comply with the full range of workers´ rights stipulated in said Convention, including a minimum work-age requirement of 18 years, written contracts and a right to the minimum wage (S/.930), among others. The law is pending regulation in January, 2021. It remains to be seen whether this next step is taken and, if so, whether the necessary monitoring mechanisms will be fully applied.  


Strengthening states’ capacity to detect and protect trafficking victims and to monitor compliance with labor rights within homes thus remains a key challenge across the world. Even more pressing, however, is the need to change historic social practices and norms regarding the “help” of underage internal migrants in domestic work. As pointed out by the ILO, the distinct characteristics of this type of work, such as the hidden, isolated and inaccessible nature of the workplace, the deceptive family setting and fictive family relations, the close proximity and subservient quality of work relations facilitate exploitative working conditions. Here, states across the global south need to develop comprehensive responses that protect and guarantee the rights of underage workers without criminalizing their families.    



Leda M. Pérez
Researcher and Professor, Academic Department of Social and Political Sciences, Universidad del Pacífico (Lima, Peru)

Luisa Feline Freier
Researcher and Professor, Academic Department of Social and Political Sciences, Universidad del Pacífico (Lima, Peru)    



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