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Domestic workers’ movement gains momentum

arton4366In September 2013, domestic workers throughout the world celebrated the entry into force of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Adopted in 2011 by the International Labour Organization (ILO) after lengthy negotiations, the Convention sets standards to protect these employees and lays down basic principles which other workers take for granted, including rights to claim rest days, clear terms and conditions of employment, a minimum wage, and social security coverage.


he Convention also demands Member States to undertake measures concerning children’s rights, namely, abolishing child labour and ensuring that children above the minimum age of employment who work domestically are not deprived of compulsory education or of other educational opportunities.

According to the Convention, a domestic worker is “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship,” (Art.1 (b)) and 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. Recent ILO estimates indicate that there are over 50 million domestic workers globally, and women and girls comprise the vast majority, some 83% of the total. In many countries these workers are excluded from labour law protection; as a result they face a range of human rights violations and are particularly vulnerable to all kinds of abuse and slavery.

International Domestic Workers’ Federation established

From 26-28 October, labour leaders from more than 40 countries gathered in Montevideo, Uruguay, to establish the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, with the main objective of organizing domestic workers around the world and enabling them to share their strategies and better advocate their rights.

“The founding of a global federation of domestic workers is a sign of the growing strength of the movement, and a key moment to assess progress for workers long excluded from basic labour protections,” the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated.

During the meeting the report “Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labor Reform” was released, which maps progress made since the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention (C.189) in 2011, and charts the growing influence of emerging domestic workers’ rights movements. The report was co-produced by IDWN, ITUC, and HRW, with the contribution, via questionnaires and interviews, of domestic workers and representatives of civil society groups from 20 different countries.

According to Claiming Rights, as of September 2013 ten countries, namely Bolivia, Germany, Guyana, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay, have ratified the Convention. Several other States have started procedures for ratification or have declared their intention to do so. The report stresses the importance of the Convention stating that “the ratification and implementation of the Domestic Workers Convention and the application of its accompanying Recommendation will promote dignity and decent work for tens of millions of domestic workers around the globe.”

The momentum of ratifications has led to improved legal protections for domestic workers in a number of countries. Claiming Rights reviews the efforts put forth by governments and gives examples of reforms that have taken place around the world since 2011. It explores the different approaches adopted, with some countries having undertaken comprehensive labour reforms, and others incremental reforms that aim to increase minimum wage and address gaps in social protection. The report notes that the most successful legislative and enforcement reforms have resulted from the joint work of domestic workers’ organizations, trade unions and advocacy groups.

Although historically domestic workers have suffered from a lack of representation, as reported in the publication, recently, the domestic workers rights movement has experienced dramatic growth, particularly around campaigning for national reforms and ratification of the ILO Convention. The advocacy groups provide services which range from assisting domestic workers who face abuses, to organizing training sessions, protests, rallies and press conferences. These events aim at empowering domestic workers, raising awareness around them, and changing the social attitude towards domestic work. The report also illustrates a number of the creative strategies employed by the organizations to reach out to domestic workers throughout the world, some isolated in private homes.

The report points out that despite some important advances over the last few years, domestic workers continue to face a wide range of obstacles. The most vulnerable categories are migrants and children, as they face higher risk of abuse and exploitation. Elements such as gaps in legal protections, relative public invisibility, limited time and mobility, and poor information on their rights, cause marginalization and mistreatment, and hinder domestic worker’s capacity to organize effectively. In addition, in some countries the right to freedom of association is not guaranteed to domestic workers. For instance, the report notes that in Bangladesh, Thailand and the United States, domestic workers are banned from forming their own trade unions.

According to the report the widespread ratification of the ILO Convention will help to spark national debate around domestic workers’ rights, which in turn will favour enhanced and stronger labour protection. The report also notes that in order to move forward, it is necessary that governments, employers and civil society advocates work collectively, sharing models and successful experiences, and ensuring that changes are felt as tangible improvements in the lives of domestic workers.

More information on the International Domestic Workers Federation is available online.

Access the map of progress for domestic workers here.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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