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After Decades of Struggle, Domestic Worker Rights Get International Protection

FRIDAY FILE: On June 16, 2011 the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 100th Annual Conference adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers which requires governments to protect the human and labour rights of domestic workers and defines minimum standards for decent working conditions.

By Kathambi Kinoti

It is difficult to obtain accurate data on the numbers of domestic workers worldwide given the largely unregulated nature of the industry. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are no less than 52.6 million domestic workers out of whom 43.6 million, or 83%, are women. It estimates that women domestic workers represent 7.5% of all female wage employment worldwide.

Domestic workers make a major contribution to the global economy cleaning, cooking, providing care to children, the elderly and people with disabilities and enabling women in particular to take up formal employment. They also contribute significantly to the flow of remittances from rich to poor countries and communities. But despite their vital roles in households and their contribution to national economies and the global economy they frequently experience exploitation, discrimination, violence, poor working conditions and other rights violations.

AWID spoke with Ellene Sana of the Philippines-based Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA) about the situation of women domestic workers and the implications of the Convention for them and their rights.

AWID: It has taken a 63 year-long struggle for the labour rights of domestic workers to be recognized at the international level. Why has it taken so long?

Ellene Sana (ES): Domestic work, which is generally considered women's work, is undervalued, unregulated and unrecognized as work. It is regarded as something 'natural' for women to do. In the Philippines, it is referred to as reproductive work as opposed to ‘productive’ or waged work.

At the international level - despite the fact that it was tabled in the ILO 63 years ago there was resistance mostly from some governments, and employers too, to bring the issue to its logical conclusion, which was to have an ILO convention for decent work for domestic workers. And without consensus from the ILO’s three partners – governments, workers and employers - the issue could not adequately be addressed.

Closer to home, in the case of the Philippines, we have a pending bill for a national domestic workers law, filed some ten plus years ago in congress and it remains pending. Why? Because the legislators do not see the urgency for it, since domestic workers are considered "part of the family" in the Philippines and because a significant number of domestic workers are relatives of the families employing them. When a domestic worker is regarded as "no different from a family member" it is considered acceptable for the employer not to pay her adequately or on time, require her to work long hours, and not provide her with her own private space in the house.

AWID: Can you explain the conditions that domestic workers often have to work under? What are some of the violations that women migrant domestic workers, in particular, face on a daily basis?

ES: Their terms and conditions of work are usually way below the minimum standards for workers. In Hong Kong, the statutory minimum wage does not cover migrant domestic workers; what applies to them is the “minimum allowable wage,” which is lower than the statutory minimum wage. On average, Filipino migrant domestic workers in the Middle East receive USD250 per month. Sometimes wage payments are delayed, or they are underpaid or not paid for several months. They receive no overtime pay although they often have long working hours -almost double those of other workers - up to between 80-90 hours a week or 16-20 hours a day. They also may not be allowed a day off. Domestic workers are expected to be on standby, for instance to attend to children at night, but these extra hours worked are not regarded as official working hours for which they should be remunerated or get time off in lieu.

Private placement agencies charge domestic workers exorbitant placement fees even though the policy is that no fees be charged. Domestic workers pay recruiters in both the origin and destination countries. Except in a few countries like Hong Kong, domestic workers have no right to join or form trade unions, but even where they do, there are no concrete legal and social measures to enable them realize this right.

Domestic workers who live within the households in which they are employed often have limited privacy, if any. They are often practically locked up in their employers’ houses without access to the outside world. Upon arrival in destination countries, agencies usually search domestic workers’ belongings and will confiscate whatever they feel like including cell phones and telephone number lists or directories. Employers take personal documents including passports to restrict the mobility of domestic workers. They are overworked and have multiple burdens as cleaners, caregivers, tutors and so on. And when their contracts expire, there have no certainty that employers will be release them immediately. They may be retained for an indefinite period of time or until a replacement arrives which can take a while. In the Middle East, the kafala[1] or sponsorship system worsens their situation because domestic workers are tied to their employers. If a domestic worker tries to escape from an abusive employer, she cannot be repatriated unless the same abusive employer agrees to the issuance of her exit visa.

AWID: Why is ILO Convention 189 so important? What in your opinion are the greatest achievements of the Convention?

ES: The ILO is the international labour standards setting body with a tripartite composition unlike the UN that has only member states.

The adoption of the ILO Convention 189 formally extends recognition to domestic workers as workers with all the entitlements of workers as enshrined in the various ILO conventions. It spells out the minimum standards of protection for domestic workers -local and migrant- as adopted by the ILO partners: governments, employers and workers’ groups.

I think the most important feature of the convention is the assertion that domestic workers must be treated no less favourably than other workers generally. This means that they are entitled to equal treatment and non-discrimination in terms of working conditions for workers generally. Their rights to decent wages and hours of work, social protection and social security, rest days, and the right to form and join trade unions are secured.

AWID: While the Convention is binding, the accompanying Recommendations – which provide governments with interpretation guidelines - are not. What is your reaction to this and what are the implications of having flexible standards for interpretation of the Convention?

ES: I think the Convention is strong so I can live with a flexible set of recommendations. Neither the Convention nor Recommendations can be read in isolation of each other; they come together in a package.

AWID: Given that most domestic workers are women, how do you see the Convention contributing to the status of women? What immediate and long-term impact do you hope to see for women’s rights?

ES: The Convention is a long-overdue recognition of women's work as work! It recognizes that 'reproductive' work is work; that the work done inside the home is as important as the work done outside the home. Domestic work is not women’s ‘natural’ work.

The Convention complements General Recommendation 26 of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women concerning the protection of women migrant workers. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has been ratified by most UN member states including common destination countries of such as those in the Middle East.

AWID: How was your organization involved in lobbying and advocacy for the adoption of the Convention? How did women’s rights organizations work together in lobbying for the adoption of the Convention?

ES: When the ILO finally resolved in 2008 to prepare for the possible adoption of a convention, we joined a campaign network for the recognition of domestic work as work. CMA served as resource group in discussing feminization of migration within a technical working group composed of trade unions and migrant and local domestic workers advocates in the Philippines, working side by side with government. We used CEDAW, General Recommendation 26 and other international human rights instruments to campaign for the adoption of the Convention. The campaign provided a platform for women's and migrants’ rights advocates, trade unions and local domestic worker rights advocates to come together since they work on intersecting issues.

AWID: After the adoption of the Convention, much work lies ahead in ensuring that it is domesticated and implemented. What challenges do you forsee, and what strategies are domestic worker rights organizations planning to employ to ensure that the provisions of the Convention become a reality in the lives of all domestic workers?

ES: We need to disseminate the information on the Convention and the accompanying Recommendations. Our advocacy network needs to regroup to embark on a synchronized ratification campaign. We need to do our homework in order to ensure that national laws are in harmony with the Convention. For instance: What countries have pending domestic worker rights legislation? We also need to identify the obstacles to the passage of a national legislation and strategize to overcome these obstacles.

[1] This is a form of legal guardianship originally intended to protect minors, but is now often extended to migrant domestic workers.