ILO adopts 'historic' convention on domestic workers

In what was viewed as a historic moment, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June adopted a landmark convention aimed at protecting tens of millions of domestic workers worldwide. Kanaga Raja reports.

AT the 100th session of the ILO's annual International Labour Conference in Geneva on 1-17 June, government, worker and employer delegates adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (2011) and an accompanying Recommendation by an overwhelming margin of votes.

Under the ILO's tripartite structure, each of the organisation's 183 member states is represented by two government delegates, and one employer and one worker delegate.

The Convention was adopted by a vote of 396 for and 16 against, with 63 abstentions. Only one government voted against the Convention, this being Swaziland.

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

The Recommendation, which provides detailed guidance on how to apply the Convention, was adopted by a vote of 434 to 8, with 42 abstentions.

The Convention and Recommendation, after it comes into force, will apply to those ratifying it, and be subject to the periodic examination and reports on implementation by the ILO Committee of Experts.

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 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.

According to an ILO policy brief on the issue of domestic 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.)

At a media briefing on 16 June after the adoption of the Convention and Recommendation, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said: '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.

The first, he said, was 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.

And their numbers keep rising, he added, noting that in Mexico, for example, the number of domestic workers increased by 89% between 1991 and 2008.

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.

The ILO head also rendered homage to the struggle of domestic workers' organisations, many of which were at the conference.

Myrtle Witbooi, the Chair of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), which is made up of domestic workers' unions and associations worldwide, said in a press release: 'Today, we celebrate a great victory for domestic workers. 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.'

According to IDWN, this is truly a historic event and a step forward for an estimated 50 to 100 million men, women and children worldwide working in the homes of their employers.

It said that domestic workers from around the world will continue their organising with 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), while welcoming the historic adoption of the Convention and Recommendation, 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 with many millions of migrant workers in domestic labour around the world, without proper monitoring, these workers 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 adoption of this Convention is a great victory, and we call upon all governments to ratify and implement it and upon the ILO to provide clear guidance to these countries that need to improve their laws to protect domestic workers' rights in their economies,' said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

The ITUC said that it has reported on widespread oppression and violence against migrant domestic workers in the Gulf. '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 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 whom 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 the ITUC.

According to the ITUC, once ratified, the Convention has the potential to take millions of workers out of the shadow economy and formalise their employment.

'Finally, domestic workers are recognised as "workers". Their longstanding demands for equal treatment with other workers are now embedded in the Convention and Recommendation. It is not a day too early...,' said Ron Oswald, General Secretary of the IUF, a global union federation for food, hotel and allied workers.

Peter Waldorff, General Secretary of Public Services International, said: 'Millions of workers, mainly women, provide care services daily to vulnerable people in their homes - services which should be provided by the State. These workers are often part of an invisible workforce with little or no legal protections. This Convention should help rectify this appalling situation and we call on Governments to ratify and implement it without delay.'

In the preamble, the Domestic Workers Convention 2011 recognises 'the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with a disability, and substantial income transfers within and between countries'.

The Convention says that 'domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights.'

It 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'.

She said that the new standards make clear that 'domestic workers are neither servants nor "members of the family", but workers. And after today, they can no longer be considered second-class workers.'         

Kanaga Raja is the Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), which is published by the Third World Network. This article is reproduced from SUNS (No. 7172, 20 June 2011).

*Third World Resurgence No. 250, June 2011, pp 43-45