Skip to main content

ILR Fellowship in Cyprus: Treatment of Foreign Domestic Workers

February 27, 2023

The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship offers Penn Carey Law Students financial support for a short-term summer legal research project abroad.

Kate Koudouna L’24

My primary reason for attending law school was to make a positive change in the world. For that, I was happy to have been selected by Penn Carey Law for an International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship.

Thanks to the ILR Fellowship, over the summer, I was able to research a topic very close to my heart: the treatment of foreign domestic workers in my home country, Cyprus. I was specifically looking into the human rights and contract violations that domestic workers are experiencing. It was clear when I interviewed these workers, all women, that most were not aware of their rights. This is because the policies and legislation are written primarily in Greek, and there are few informational leaflets or videos to educate the workers about their rights.

I further identified four major challenges faced by foreign domestic workers in Cyprus: (1) poor working conditions, (2) unfair compensation, (3) constraints on their freedom to have a personal life and connect with their families, and (4) verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that often goes unreported or, if reported, receives no attention from the appropriate authorities.

On entering Cyprus, foreign domestic workers sign a standardized contract stating that they will only work at their employer’s house, for a total of 6 seven-hour-long days a week, for compensation of €309 per month. In Cyprus, there is no general minimum wage. But by law, shop clerks, hairdressers, nurse assistants, and those in similar jobs currently must be paid a minimum of €870 per month, which rises to €924 after six months of work. Clearly, foreign domestic workers’ salaries are significantly below the typical salary.

It was invaluable to me to be able to meet these women and hear their stories. I was disheartened to learn that often, they are treated more like possessions than like human beings. Virtually all of the women work excessive hours. Because most cannot afford to rent their own places and must stay at their employers’ houses, they are expected to be “on call” at all times. Moreover, it is very common for employers to “lend” them to their friends and families without providing additional compensation.

Research conducted by a university in Cyprus has highlighted the abuses these workers may endure. Yet over 75% of the workers participating in the research would not report the abuse to the police, for a number of reasons. Foreign domestic workers risk deportation, whereas their abusers often go unpunished. The police are highly biased, and the domestic workers often do not trust the authorities—a justifiable reaction, as demonstrated by the accidental discovery of a foreign domestic worker’s body in a suitcase a few years ago, which led to the conviction of a serial killer who had been targeting foreign workers. He had gone undetected for years because when migrants were reported missing, the police assumed that they had simply run off to areas not under the effective control of Cyprus, and they never investigated.

This just scratches the surface of a systemic problem that is rooted, among other things, in the de-prioritization of the feminist agenda in Cyprus, racism, and the political situation in Cyprus as a part-occupied nation. By putting these issues on paper, I am hoping that more NGOs will implement initiatives to mitigate the challenges faced by foreign domestic workers.

Going into the summer, I felt well equipped by Penn Carey Law to take on this project. Even as a 1L, the Law School has allowed me to take classes that would give me the foundational knowledge to have a meaningful summer. Taking the International Law class was particularly important for understanding how states and individuals fit into the international system, especially regarding human rights and their legal capacities in supranational entities like the European Union.

Coming back from this experience, I feel more well-rounded as a person and as a law student. I have discovered my passion for international human rights and will be pursuing a certificate alongside my law degree. I feel more ready to begin my 2L year and bring into the classroom my unique experiences and perspectives.