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Domestic Workers: Long Hours, Backbreaking Jobs and Few Rights



Children selling postcards in Petra, Jordan.
Bedouin children sell postcards in the Petra historical site, near Wadi Musa, in Jordan. About 7.4 million children under age 15 work worldwide, including household jobs. JARED J. KOHLER/ILO

Two years ago, commemorating International Domestic Workers Day on June 16, governments, labor unions and employers’ associations voted overwhelmingly to create global labor standards to help promote the rights of the 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide.

The United Nations International Labor Organization, or ILO, adopted such a convention, No. 189, in 2011, vastly changing how domestic workers’ rights should be perceived by societies, but only three countries so far, Mauritius, Philippines and Uruguay, have ratified it. The workers, mostly women and girls, continue to desperately need new protections, in light of a slew of cases in recent years where workers cited serious abuse. These included sexual exploitation in the homes they cleaned as well as slavery, forced imprisonment and, in rare instances, murder by their employers.

As a follow-up to the new standards and recommendations of the convention, the ILO carried out a full review and survey of the current status of domestic workers’ rights. The report, “Domestic Workers Across the World: Global and Regional Statistics and the Extent of Legal Protection,” was released in January. It documents widespread abuses and what the UN labels an “invisible” profession, where major gaps exist in national laws to protect such workers.

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A domestic worker is generally classified as a person employed for remuneration in cash or in-kind in any household, on a permanent or temporary basis. Tasks to be performed include cooking, cleaning, child care and general maintenance around the home, depending on the country. The workers are especially vulnerable if they are migrants and travel outside their native country. A large number of them travel abroad to work in wealthy countries, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Some workers live in the employer’s home, while others return to their towns and villages in the evening after their jobs are done, often to cook and clean for their own families well into the night.

No formal contracts are signed to guarantee an employer-employee relationship, and most domestic workers lack bargaining power and legislative protection. They often come from marginal backgrounds with low social status and are forced to work 8 to 18 hours a day, lacking social and health services.

Currently, the report says that more than 80 percent of people in domestic work are women, which accounts for 7.5 percent of women’s employment worldwide. In the Middle East, that percentage is much higher, with one-third of women earning their living toiling away in other people’s homes.

Martin Oelz, the report’s author, was interviewed by Skype in Geneva. Oelz is a legal specialist for the International Labor Organization’s working conditions and employment program. He said that ILO was striving hard to enforce the convention’s agreements at national and local levels, but it was difficult, given the meager laws covering domestic workers’ rights.

“These new standards concretize other international standards on human rights and gender equality and give for the first time more specific guidance on how countries can address specific deficits,” Oelz said. “The typical workers are the people that work in factories and workshops, and they are covered by labor legislation, including working time, wages, social security, occupational safety and health and maternity protection. Now with domestic workers who are employed by private households rather than by companies, they have for a long time been absent from labor legislation.”

The convention, he added, “fills this policy gap and asks governments to include their countries in following these labor laws. It says a domestic worker, like any other worker, should also enjoy basic things, like a day off per week, a limitation of working hours and a reasonable level of remuneration that allows them and their families to live.”

The report outlined  extensive progress throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, though many countries continued to exclude domestic workers from labor laws to some extent. Oelz emphasized that child labor was often involved in domestic work and that children under the minimum age of employment (14 and 15 years old, depending on the country) are often exploited. About 7.4 million children under age 15 are employed in domestic duties worldwide, he added.

Women domestic workers in India commemorating Domestic Workers Day.
Commemorating International Domestic Workers Day in India. R. SHIVAJI RAO

In many countries throughout Asia, domestic workers are not even partly covered by labor laws; in Malaysia, for example, some workers can clock up to 70 hours a week. Singapore, however, announced in January that domestic workers would have a day off every week.

Scant legal protection for domestic workers in Asia, including in the Middle East “has to do with the fact that domestic work is not perceived as work,” Oelz said. “It is seen as wealthy people doing a favor for poorer parts of the population by allowing them to work as domestic workers. This also then very much defines a relationship of subordination, which resembles a traditional master-servant relationship.”

India has four million domestic workers, the report says. Recently, a sweeping nationwide push by local labor unions to ratify the UN convention standards has been made. But the standards cover a wide variety of work, with classifications that lump together housemaids, servants, cooks, gatekeepers, babysitters and gardeners, leaving lots of room for noncompliance and interpretation. The government has largely been criticized for ignoring the call to ease the heavy physical and mental burdens on domestic workers, though in early February, an Indian court in the north sentenced two people to life imprisonment for killing an elderly woman they had employed as a domestic worker.

A labor union leader in the Tamil Nadu state in southern India, Vahidha Nizam, who is president of the All India Trade Union Congress, said in an interview by Skype that unlike regular laborers, domestic workers are dehumanized. “They are the most exploited lot,” he said.

An average worker earns about $18 to $111 a month and typically puts in long hours in two homes. Many of the local Indian women doing this work are unmarried, so they do not have spousal support. “She cannot stop working, because her salary is the biggest source of income in the family household and mostly likely she receives no weekly holiday, and when she has to take leave, she loses the day’s income,” Nizam said.

Nizam noted that the union started organizing domestic workers in 1998 for them to be treated as regular workers, to get them maternity leave and in some cases, persuade employers to pay the women 3,000 rupees (about $55) for six months while they are pregnant and away from their jobs.

He also said that financing from the International Labor Organization has enabled the trade union to help up to 17,000 Tamil Nadu domestic workers to unionize and to organize in 10 other Indian states. Their demands include being paid national minimum wage. In Kerala, Maharashta and Karnataka states, increasing restrictions have been made regarding the hiring of children under age 14. Such new rules can improve the lives of domestic workers, but much more is needed, Oelz said.

“Standards themselves don’t change realities in the lives of the workers,” he said. “The standards must be included in policy making in a range of areas, including work and family, reconciliation, migration and care issues.” Families, he added, “often see it as a good investment to send young girls into domestic work, but what is often not fully understood is how detrimental such situations can become in terms of their development and opportunities and how it can affect their whole life.”

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Tala Dowlatshahi is based in Zurich, where she runs the communities team for the International Relations and Security Network, an online information-services project. She formerly worked as the United Nations bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service. Since 2002, Dowlatshahi has also worked as a US representative for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontieres), the Paris-based media watchdog group. Dowlatshahi has reported from Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Turkey, South Africa and Uganda. Her work has been featured on CNN International, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, Reuters and in humanitarian news programs. She is member of New York Women in Film and Television and the Overseas Press Club of America as well as a recipient of the 2011 Visual Artists Guild champion for the right of freedom of speech and expression award. She as a B.A. in mass communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in international development from New York University.

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