ILO Passes Historic Domestic Workers Convention

Published by Kyle Todd, UCLA School of Law, in UCLA's Globalization and Labor Standards Project newsletter, August 2011

On June 16, the International Labor Organization (ILO) passed the Convention on Domestic Workers (“convention”), an international treaty which includes, among other provisions, the right to at least one full day of rest per week, limits on working hours for underage workers, and collective bargaining rights. This, the ILO’s 189th convention, was passed overwhelmingly by the organization’s 484 voting members, which include governments, employers and workers. Passage took place after years of organizing by domestic workers, unions, and other advocates.

Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and the United States led the effort for strong protections, while countries in the European Union displayed the most apprehension. While Swaziland was the only country that ultimately voted against the convention, El Salvador, Malaysia, Panama, the United Kingdom, Sudan, the Czech Republic, and Thailand all abstained. Additionally, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), along with some Southeast Asian countries, turned from early opposition to eventually supporting the final convention text.

Convention 189 was the culmination of decades of organizing by domestic workers associations, networks and coalitions. In 1988, domestic workers from eleven countries met in Colombia to form the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Household Workers. Since then, the group has lobbied the governments of the Western Hemisphere to respect domestic workers’ rights. In 2006, a successful campaign in Uruguay culminated in the passage of a national law that puts domestic workers on the same footing as the rest of the country’s workforce. In 2009 Chile passed a law to regulate domestic work and to gradually provide domestics with the country’s national minimum wage. In Guatemala, the government has created a program to protect women employed in private homes and to provide domestic workers with maternal and health care for their own children. In the United States, many national labor laws continue to exclude domestic workers. However, in 2010 New York became the first US state to pass a “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights,” and efforts to pass similar legislation are underway in other states, such as California.

The ILO spent the last three years drafting and revising the convention. For the last two years, members have engaged in negotiations and debate on matters such as working hours for live-in domestics, in-kind payments such as housing, and labor inspections in private homes. The Convention was finally introduced in June of last year during the ILO’s International Labor Conference.

“Domestic work is among the oldest and most important occupations for women worldwide,” states the Global Fund for Women. “It is an industry that has its roots in the global slave trade, colonialism and other forms of servitude.” Today, with the rise of globalization and international migration, domestic work has come to play a significant role in the economies of developed nations. More women in these countries are entering the workforce, while few governments have public policies that help those women reconcile their work and home lives. This has helped to create a “care deficit,” in the Global North, which drives a feminized migration from the Global South.

The resultant domestic labor market, estimated at between 50 and 100 million workers , is filled with grave abuse and exploitation, including work days of sixteen hours or more, regular non-payment of wages, forced confinement, and physical and sexual abuse. Additionally, the ILO has found that children make up roughly 30 percent of the world’s domestic workers. As domestic workers, being separated from their families and totally dependent on their employers makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

The new Domestic Worker Convention has a number of key provisions to help make working conditions better for domestic workers worldwide, including Article 3, which provides for collective bargaining rights, elimination of forced and child labor, and employment discrimination in domestic work, as well as Article 10, which requires parity with other kinds of workers in laws concerning hours of work, overtime compensation, and daily and weekly rest periods. For now, however, implementation awaits ratification by member countries. The Philippines and Uruguay have already said they would ratify the accord. In the US, there is little chance that the convention will be ratified. This is because one of its provisions requires ratifying nations to pass implementing legislation, and in the US such legislation would mean overriding the national labor laws which currently exclude domestic workers.

Still, there is hope that the convention will lead to greater public awareness of the plight of domestic workers, whose labor sits at the margins of regulation.