June 23, 2011
Three years ago, when the International Labor Organization (ILO) decided to consider new international standards on domestic work, we began a global advocacy campaign.  We sent hundreds of letters to government labor ministers and met with dozens of government officials. We produced an educational video and a photo brochure with our main findings and recommendations, and held public educational events in Geneva and The Hague to build support for the treaty. Last year, the ILO agreed to create a legally binding convention.

Domestic workers -- nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers -- are some of the most exploited workers in the world. But a new international treaty has been adopted to help protect them, thanks in part to 10 years of Human Rights Watch research and advocacy. The treaty is the first of its kind.

The 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide often face a range of abuses, from long working hours with no days off to sexual harassment or violence from their employers. Many work for months without getting paid, or are not paid at all.

This landmark treaty gives these workers the dignity they are due and the same rights other workers have under the law. This includes earning a minimum wage, a weekly day off, and limits to their working hours. It also obliges governments to protect them from violence and to monitor and enforce these provisions. 

About 30 percent of domestic workers are girls, some of whom start working between ages 6 and 8, leaving them especially susceptible to abuse. Workers who have migrated from other countries also run a high risk of experiencing violence. The treaty addresses the vulnerabilities of both groups.

When we began investigating abuses of domestic workers throughout the world 10 years ago, almost no one was paying attention to the issue. Our research and advocacy, along with a growing domestic workers' rights movement, helped build widespread recognition of the problem.
 
We conducted investigations into the abuse of domestic workers in more than 15 countries. While investigating child domestic workers in El Salvador, Guinea, Indonesia, and Morocco, we found that some children start working at age 6 and work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. In Indonesia we found that only 1 of 45 child domestic workers interviewed was attending school.

In Malaysia, Singapore, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries, we found that on any given day foreign embassies often doubled as shelters for abused domestic workers filing complaints or trying to return to their homelands.

And in Lebanon, we uncovered a grim death toll. Domestic workers, all of them migrants, were dying at a rate of more than one a week -- generally from suicide or botched escape attempts from tall apartment buildings.

We have pressured governments to improve protections for migrant women, with some success. 

Indonesia and Sri Lanka have improved monitoring of recruitment agencies and provide more services to domestic workers such as pre-departure training, assistance resolving labor disputes, and legal aid for criminal court cases. Guinea issued a new Child Code, which ensures better legal protection for child workers.

Kuwait, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia are all considering reforms either by offering new laws on domestic work or amending existing labor codes. Lebanon has issued new regulations for employment and recruitment agencies, and introduced a mandatory standard contract with provisions like a weekly day off.

But this was clearly a global problem, and we needed a global solution.

Three years ago, when the International Labor Organization (ILO) decided to consider new international standards on domestic work, we began a global advocacy campaign.  We sent hundreds of letters to government labor ministers and met with dozens of government officials. We produced an educational video and a photo brochure with our main findings and recommendations, and held public educational events in Geneva and The Hague to build support for the treaty. 

Last year, the ILO agreed to create a legally binding convention, to be ratified by countries that agree to be parties to it - to strengthen and enforce laws protecting domestic workers. We were closely involved in every step of the treaty negotiations, and we especially pushed for specific protections for migrant and child domestic workers, as their situations are particularly precarious.

We coordinated with workers' groups and briefed diplomats and employer groups, encouraging them to support the convention and key provisions. We engaged in heated debates over its content, such as the regulation of private employment agencies and the right of child domestic workers to education. 

Governments told us that they used our materials to brief their own labor ministries and that they relied on our recommendations to propose amendments during the negotiations.

Of 475 votes cast by governments, workers, and employers, 396 delegates voted for the convention, 63 abstained, and only 16 voted against it. In addition to extending basic labor rights to all domestic workers, the treaty requires governments to set a minimum age for domestic work and to provide girls with access to education, along with other protections. To protect migrant workers, the treaty requires governments to regulate employment recruitment and to investigate abuse complaints. 

 Human Rights Watch will press governments to ratify this landmark treaty as soon as possible and to bring their national laws in line with it.