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Workers’ rights

A victory for household helpers

by Hans Dembowski

In brief

Domestic worker in a rich Brazilian household

Domestic worker in a rich Brazilian household

In June, the annual conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted a new convention to protect household helpers as well as recommendations on how to implement this international agreement.

The Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers spells out that the people concerned must have the same basic labour rights as other employed persons. According to the ILO, these rights include “reasonable working hours, a 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 including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining”. In countries where a minimum wage has been defined, domestic workers are entitled to it.

The ILO estimates that there are at least 53 million household helpers all over the world, but that the real number may be as high as 100 million since “this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered”. More than 80 % of the domestic workers are said to be women and girls. In developing countries, the ILO states, they make up four to 12 % of wage employment (see ar­ticles on pages 282 and 284 of our focus section with these matters).

The Convention spells out 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.” It considers the people concerned “particularly vulnerable to discrimination and to abuses of human rights.” The Convention covers all domestic workers, but includes special measures for those who are exposed to “special risks” because of their age or nationality.

These risks, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), include violence and sexual abuse. This international non-govern­mental organisation estimates that about 30 % of all domestic workers are under-age girls. HRW investigations in the past revealed that the youngest household helpers are sometimes only six years old.

Minimum age

The Convention demands that member countries define a minimum age for domestic workers that must not be lower than the minimum age for other kinds of employment. It must be ensured, more­over, that household helpers below the age of 18 go to school.

The Convention will become binding international law for member countries that ratify it. Support for the Convention was very strong. It was adopted with 396 to 16 votes and 63 abstentions. The ILO is the UN’s only tripartite body. In the annual conference, each member country has four delegates – two from the governments, one from business associations and one from trade unions. They cast their votes independently.

Even the normally conservative governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council voted for Convention, even though they had opposed the idea in the past. Many migrant workers are doing household work in the Arab world – and many of them come from the Philippines. Accordingly, President Noynoy Aquino’s administration in Manila spoke out in favour of the Convention. Immediately after it was passed, however, Filipino labour rights ­activists demanded that Aquino now live up to his international commitment and act to improve matters for domestic workers in his country.

The decision to draft the Convention was taken at last year’s annual ILO conference (see D+C/E+Z 2010/7–8, p. 307). Pressure to do something about the often depressing fate of domestic workers has been building up for years, not least because migrants have become increasingly assertive in public. Even migrants who lack passports and other legal documentation have staged demonstrations in many countries. (dem)