Historic ILO’s convention on domestic workers

Juan Somavia with
representatives of domestic
workers. (Photo: ILO)

Source: SUNS.

In what is viewed as a historical moment, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted this month for the first time a landmark convention aimed at protecting between 53 and 100 millions of domestic workers worldwide, reported the South-North Development Monitor from Geneva.

At the annual labour conference taking place here, government, worker and employer delegates adopted on 16 June the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (2011) and an accompanying recommendation by an overwhelming margin of votes: 396 for and 16 against, with 63 abstentions. Only one government voted against the Convention (Swaziland).

ILO's 189th Convention will come into force after two countries have ratified it.

According to an ILO press release, the new standards set out that domestic workers worldwide who care for families and households, must have the same basic labour rights as those available to other workers, namely, reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payment, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work including amongst others, freedom of association and the rights to collective bargaining.

The ILO said that its recent estimates based on national surveys and/or censuses of 117 countries place the number of domestic workers at a minimum of 53 million, but experts say that there could be 100 million in the world, considering that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered.

In developing countries, according to the ILO, they make up at least 4-12% of wage employment. Around 83% of these workers are women or girls and many are migrant workers. The two regions with the largest number of domestic workers are Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Asia, at least 21.5 million women and men work in private households (or 40.8% of all domestic workers worldwide), while 19.6 million domestic workers live in Latin America and the Caribbean (some 37.3% of the global total.)

ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said at a media breafing: "This is a historical moment for domestic workers worldwide. Today, we have taken a significant step by overwhelming majority towards making domestic work, decent work —in fact it's the name of the convention; making what is too often invisible work, visible."

The ILO head mentioned what he said were two very important reasons why it is a significant step.

Somavia mentioned that the first important reason why this is a significant step is the sheer number of workers involved. There are at least 53 million domestic workers across the globe and some calculations bring it up to about 100 million. The great majority of them are women and many of them are migrant workers.

The second reason, Somavia said, is that this is a convention that goes into the heart of the informal economy.

"Consequently, it's very much ground-breaking in that sense. As we all know, decent work deficits in the informal economy are huge. Domestic workers are no exception. For example, for over 56% of all domestic workers, there isn't a law setting a limit to how long they can work per week. And about 45% of all domestic workers are not entitled to at least one day off per week."

The ILO head said that the Convention offers guidance on limiting the practice of payment in kind, it addresses food and accommodation for live-in domestic workers, and it calls upon Member States to ensure reasonable hours and sufficient hours of rest, and a number of other specific issues.

"But above all, and this is absolutely essential," he said, "this convention states that domestic workers are workers and that they are neither servants nor members of the family."

"This might sound obvious, but it is not," he further said, adding that being a worker means having rights, a voice and access to a decent life, and many domestic workers today are closer to being forced labourers than workers.

Myrtle Witbooi, the Chair of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), said in a press release: "Until now, we have been treated as 'invisible', not respected for the huge contribution we make in society and the economy and denied our rights as workers. It is an injustice that has lasted too long."

It said that domestic workers from around the world will continue their efforts at the national level to ensure that governments put the contents of the Convention into the law of each country.

According to IDWN, the Convention affirms that domestic workers have the same fundamental rights that all workers have: the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

In a separate press release, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) called on the ILO to ensure that governments around the world were put on notice about protecting the millions of people in the domestic work sphere.

It said that, without proper monitoring, many millions of migrant workers in domestic labour around the world would continue to suffer violent and oppressive employment conditions, exploitative recruitment agencies, remuneration below legal minimums, non-payment of wages, exclusion from social security schemes, excessive working hours and the worst forms of child domestic labour.

"The international union movement will continue to shed light on the working conditions of migrant domestic workers in the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain," said ITUC General-Secretary Ms Sharan Burrow.

"It is not acceptable that in countries with strong economies and a lot of personal wealth, we have an underclass of domestic slaves, whose passports are taken when they arrive, and who have no one to turn to if their employer treats them with violence or harassment," Burrow added.

She called on the ILO to develop an action plan specifically for the monitoring of the implementation of the Convention in the Gulf.

There are an estimated 2.1 million migrant domestic workers, 83% of which are women, and it is further estimated that in total, domestic work accounts for no less than 7.5% of female wage employment worldwide, said ITUC.

The Convention defines the term "domestic work" to mean "work performed in or for a household or households", and the term "domestic worker" to mean "any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship." It also states that a person who performs domestic work "only occasionally or sporadically and not on an occupational basis" is not a domestic worker.

According to the ILO, while the new instruments cover all domestic workers, they provide for special measures to protect those workers who, because of their young age or nationality or live-in status, may be exposed to additional risks relative to their peers, amongst others.

"This is a truly major achievement," said Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Programme. She called the new standards "robust, yet flexible."