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A historical step

by Stefan Rother


Migrants without papers have reason to shy from contact with authorities

Migrants without papers have reason to shy from contact with authorities

The International Labour Conference (ILC) has decided to draft a binding convention on the rights of domestic workers. The ILC does not distinguish between women with a residency permit and those without. [ By Stefan Rother ]

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 100 million people are currently employed as domestic workers. The vast majority of them are women. They do
important work, looking after children, taking care of the elderly and allowing parents – especially mothers – to pursue careers.

Nonetheless, this group of workers is among the least protected internationally. Abuse comes in many ways, from unpaid overtime to severe restrictions of freedom of movement, physical violence and sexual abuse. Victims can often hardly defend themselves. Most are isolated, dependent and in no position to organise. Many are underage.

In rich countries, many migrant women do housework. Their rights are usually quite limited. Women who entered a country without legal documentation, moreover, have reason to shy contact with authorities. Making things worse, some recruitment agencies charge the women placement fees that are so high that the victims end up in debt bondage. In poor countries, the fate of household helpers also tends to be tough. Typically, they are from rural areas, never got much education and are under total control of their employers.

In principle, international human rights should apply to all workers. Nonetheless, the labour laws of many countries explicitly exclude domestic workers. Their work is simply not considered “real work”. The migrant status, moreover, explains why it took rich nations’ labour unions very long to become interested in these women. Cheap foreign workers are tolerated, provided they do not compete with local job seekers. On the other hand, the governments of the countries of origin are usually more interested in the money that migrant women transfer back home than in their welfare abroad. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that domestic workers are held in low esteem just about everywhere.

In light of this situation, the 99th ILC’s decision in June to provide better protection to domestic workers was a historical step. Non-governmental organisations and labour activists campaigned for this cause before and during the event.

The tripartite ILC is made up of governments, labour unions and employer organisations. In the end, the committee that dealt with the matter opted for a binding convention instead of only coming up with a list of recommendations. Some Asian countries, for instance India, opposed this decision. Canada and employer representatives also spoke out against a “robust instrument”. The stance of the USA, that has traditionally been one of provocative indifference to the matter, however, has changed. The diplomats of President Barack Obama argued in favour of the household helpers.

The ILC has now made it very clear that domestic workers have basic rights such as the freedom of association as well as rights to formal employment contracts and regulated working hours. Moreover, the conference tackled specific issues such as the right to privacy. In principle, all domestic workers (are to) enjoy these rights, whether they have permits of residence or not. The ILC draft convention does not make any such distinction.

A battle has been won, but the struggle is not over yet. Next year, the draft convention will be on the agenda of the ILC for further discussion. Activists from labour unions believe employers’ organisations will try to slow down approval. Once the plenary adopts the convention, member countries will yet have to ratify it. Sadly, similar ILO conventions do not have many signatories. Moreover, many countries that do ratify the convention are likely to re-introduce the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, excluding the latter from labour rights.

Nonetheless, the decision to go for a convention marks an important step forwards. For good reason, ILO director Manuela Tomei is pleased with the ”cultural change” that finally considers household helpers real workers.