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A Spotlight on the Domestic Workers Convention and Recommendation

On 16 June 2011, at the 100th session of the International Labour Conference, representatives of governments, workers unions and employers organizations adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (C189) as well as the non-binding Domestic Workers Recommendation (R201). The adoption of both the Convention and Recommendation has been widely perceived as a historical moment or landmark in the history of international labour rights, as it lays down basic labour rights and principles for domestic workers – a group that historically has been denied such rights. For years, domestic workers’ unions and associations, and non-government organizations, have been advocating for such an international instrument. Domestic work is defined as work performed in or for a household or households, and includes cleaning, cooking, washing, taking care of children, elderly or sick members of a family, and gardening. A domestic worker is “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship.”

So, what does this Convention entail?

In an interview with ILO Online, Manuela Tomei, Director of ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Programme, explained that the recently adopted Convention constitutes an international commitment to improve the living and working conditions of a very large segment of the work force which has been historically excluded from the protection of labour laws. In other words, countries ratifying this Convention are recognizing and committing themselves to providing a minimum level of protection for domestic workers, including the improvement of their working and living conditions. This means that they will need to extend or adapt existing laws and regulations or develop new ones to include domestic workers.

According to Ms. Tomei, the Convention can also help domestic workers to better understand their employment terms and conditions, as it establishes the right of domestic workers to be informed. Moreover, the Convention recognizes that domestic work actually takes place at “home” and, as such, tries to strike a better balance between their labour rights and the right to privacy of household members. In addition, the Convention is expected to have a tremendous impact on gender equality, Ms. Tomei explained, as more than 90% of today’s domestic work force comprises women and girls.

To read the full interview with Ms. Tomei, click here.

Besides providing better opportunities for women, the new Convention is expected to benefit children that perform domestic tasks in the home of a third party or employer as it compliments two other key ILO Conventions on child labour: Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age and Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. According to the ILO, at least 15.5 million children (age 5 to 17) were engaged in domestic work in 2008. However, it is expected that this figure is an underestimation of the reality due to the hidden character of domestic work. ILO experts Martin Oelz and José M. Ramírez explained that “this phenomenon is often hidden and hard to tackle because of its links to social and cultural patterns. In many countries child domestic work is not only accepted socially and culturally, but is also regarded in a positive light as a protected and non-stigmatised type of work and preferred to others forms of employment – especially for girls.” However, children in domestic service face various risks, such as long and tiring working days; use of toxic chemicals; carrying heavy loads; handling dangerous items such as knives, axes and hot pans; insufficient or inadequate food and accommodation; and humiliating or degrading treatment including physical and verbal violence, and sexual abuse. Moreover, they are denied some of their basic human rights, such as their right to education. The newly adopted Convention aims to change this situation. By ratifying the Convention, Member States commit themselves to taking measures that will ensure that work performed by domestic workers under the age of 18 and above the minimum age of employment does not deprive them of compulsory education or interfere with opportunities to participate in further education or vocational training.

For more information on how the Convention could contribute to the protection of the labour rights of children, read the full ILO Online interview with ILO experts Martin Oelz and José M. Ramírez. The Convention also promotes equal treatment between domestic and other workers in terms of working hours, overtime compensation, periods of daily and weekly rest, and annual paid leave, as well as better rights in terms of remuneration; occupational safety and health; and social security.

Read also: Convention No. 189 – Decent work for domestic workers.

Reactions on the adoption of the Convention have been very positive on the side of civil society organizations. In “The Independent,” for example, Olivier Pearce, Policy Officer at Christian Aid, said “This is a fantastic achievement for domestic workers – one of the most vulnerable groups of workers across the world.” He explained that “there are over 100 million domestic workers worldwide, many of them migrants sending money home to families from their meagre wages. Too often these workers are exploited and abused, and because their work takes place in private household it is often hard to regulate.” WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) wrote on its website that “History was made on June 16, 2011 when governments, employers and workers from around the world adopted the Convention and accompanying Recommendation on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.” Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona reacted by noting the adoption of this Convention will give its organization “momentum to lobby and urge host governments to signify and ratify this international instrument recognizing the rights and welfare of around 30-million women migrant domestic workers in the Middle East.” In a news release, Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said: “Discrimination against women and poor legal protections have allowed abuses against domestic workers to flourish in every corner of the world. This new convention is a long overdue recognition of housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers as workers who deserve respect and equal treatment under the law.”

The way forward

Although the Convention has been adopted (with a total of 396 votes in favour of the Convention; 16 votes against and 63 abstained votes), countries will now need to ratify the Convention before the Convention comes into force (a minimum of two ratifications is needed). This might take some time as countries need to verify to what extent their national legislation and regulations are in conformity with the Convention. Therefore, domestic workers and their supporting organizations will need to continue their advocacy strategies at the national level in order to convince governments to ratify and implement the Convention.

For more information, see ILO’s Domestic Workers Portal.