Millions of domestic workers around the world are employed in private homes, often unregulated by public authorities, making them vulnerable to exploitation. This week the ILO has been meeting in Geneva to design a convention to protect them.
Following lengthy negotiations the ILO have agreed an historic Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, 50 years since the issue of their rights were first raised. This is a fantastic achievement for domestic workers – one of the most vulnerable groups of workers across the world.
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.
Existing international conventions, and some national labour laws, do not explicitly mention domestic work, which means they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Christian Aid’s partner organisation based in the Philippines, Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) noted that this new convention is a significant step forward. MFA’s co-ordinator, William Gois commented at the conference: “Workers in the informal sector have been brought into the formal sector for the first time. This represents a ray of hope for others working in the informal sector, that someday their rights will be protected as well.”
For example some employers forbid migrant domestic workers from leaving the house and confiscate their passports, threatening deportation to keep them imprisoned and financially enslaved. This convention will aim to ensure domestic workers have the right to keep their own documents. Other standards discussed were maximum working hours and minimum age.
Attending the conference is Marissa Begonia from the Philippines, she is a representative of Justice 4 Domestic Workers. In Hong Kong she was the victim of abusive employers, and now supports other migrant workers by talking to them about their rights.
She explains, “I have been a domestic worker for 17 years. Physically, the long working hours are hard, but those who suffer the worst are the ones who are beaten or sexually abused, their life is a nightmare. A lot of women are in that situation. It is really sad: they work within a family, they should feel safe and happy there, but the opposite is true. Private homes can be a dangerous place for a domestic worker, which is why we so desperately need this new ILO domestic work convention to be adopted by the ILO at next weeks plenary session. It will put standards in place which protect the rights of domestic workers.
Overall, the negotiations have proceeded in a careful way, with delegates aiming to reach consensus on each provision.
However, during the ILO convention process the UK government has not been standing up for domestic workers in the countries where laws and practice are not as good as in the UK. This is despite the UK promoting human rights in its development policy and specifically its commitment to enhancing labour rights internationally as a means of reducing poverty.
One of the most embarrassing moments for the UK came during the discussion regarding an article for the Recommendation on dealing with children who may be engaged in domestic work. Articles in the Recommendation are for guidance, to promote best practice for ILO members aiming to ensure holistic application of labour rights.
The UK government argued against the draft text which calls on governments to ‘give special attention to the needs of domestic workers who are under the age of 18 and above the minimum age of employment as defined by national laws and practice and take measures to protect them’. The UK government claimed that it has strong provisions against child labour and would not want to strengthen them further. This stance jeopardised attempts to improve working and living conditions for children in countries where mechanisms are not so strong, meaning children work in poor conditions with few protections.
Other countries maintained that standards on child labour and living conditions are fundamental, and argued strongly against the UK, led by the United States and Australia whose representative described the UK move as ‘diluting’ the standard and pointed out that it was ‘not consistent with what the committee is charged to do’.. Lastly, the government of the United Arab Emirates, speaking on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed that living conditions of children are important, and that they agreed with the USA, not the UK.
Noting the opposition, the UK representative cited the ILO advice and withdrew the amendment.
This week has marked a historic moment in the International Labour Organisation as it has agreed a standard to formalise workers hitherto working in the informal sector.
Christian Aid hopes that the UK government recognises this new milestone, votes for the Convention Decent Work for Domestic Workers and then commits to ratify it. We look forward to working with governments, employers and standing alongside domestic workers to ensure that their rights are protected; that domestic work is seen as work; and domestic workers are seen as workers entitled to rights as other workers.