If there was a runner-up award for oldest profession, ‘servant’ would certainly have a shot. But domestic work, like sex work, is rarely treated as real labor, which explains in part why domestic laborers are all-too-often abused, their triumphs downplayed, their work swept under the door. It also explains why, despite links to slavery, colonialism and globalization, domestic labor is typically treated as a matter of private, not public, concern.
An ongoing spat between Malaysia and Indonesia provides a useful reminder of why ‘domestic’ work is a global issue. As the New York Times reported last week, Malaysia is in the the throes of a maid shortage. About 19 months ago, Indonesia barred its citizens from accepting new jobs as maids in Malaysia. The ban came after a series of reports of torture and exploitation by Malaysian employers. Despite an influx of willing job-seekers from poorer nations like Cambodia, the number of foreign-born maids has dropped precipitously, leaving Malaysia’s middle class short on nannies and cleaners. Meanwhile, the women and girls who’ve arrived from Cambodia and elsewhere are at-risk.
Of course, this is not just a Southeast Asia thing. Research by Human Right Watch and the International Labor Organization confirms what we all basically know — there are literally millions of people, mostly women, working in others people’s homes. Since household tasks have long been considered ‘women’s work’ as opposed to, well, work work, pay tends to be low and legal protection minimal. Though many domestic workers do enjoy decent conditions (and are rightly proud of the work they do), excessive working hours, lack of rest days and restrictions on freedom of movement are alarmingly common. And, while working far from home allows many women to earn more money, it can also put them at greater risk of abuse.
It’s worth remembering, though, that while this is an old problem, it’s certainly not intractable. Legislative reforms can and have improved working conditions for domestic workers. Jordan, for instance, has amended its labor laws to include foreign maids, guaranteeing basic rights like regular pay and rest days. Other countries ought to follow suit. Fair laws do not guarantee fair treatment (indeed, Jordan has struggled to enforce its laws ) but legal reform is a step toward changing minds.
More from TIME.com: Read about the plight of Sri Lankan maids in Saudi Arabia, find out how Indonesia has tried to protect its citizens abroad and learn about the Philippines’ ‘motherless generation.’