Summary and Key Recommendations
Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International welcome the International Labour Organization's attention to decent work for domestic workers, and the decision of the ILO Governing Body to place decent work for domestic workers on the agenda of the 2010 International Labour Conference.
The ILO has found that domestic work is an important occupation for millions of individuals, absorbing up to 10 percent of total employment in some countries. However, this work is undervalued and poorly regulated, and many domestic workers are overworked, underpaid, unprotected, and vulnerable to abuse. For these reasons, we strongly support the ILO's recommendation (Report IV(1) for the International Labour Conference, 99th Session, 2010) that ILO Members develop a new instrument that addresses the special conditions in which domestic work is carried out, and strengthens protections for domestic workers.
Our research on domestic work in twenty countries confirms that domestic workers are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world. Predominantly, though not exclusively women and girls, they often experience working conditions that fall far short of international standards, including low and irregular pay, excessively long hours of work, lack of rest periods, and exclusion from social protection such as social security and maternity benefits.
Domestic workers may also face physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, food deprivation, forced confinement, and trafficking into forced labour. These risks are heightened given their isolation, the imbalance of power between employer and domestic worker, lack of information or ability to seek help, and financial pressures and debts that make them afraid to lose their employment.
The risk of abuse is heightened for child domestic workers, who make up a significant proportion of domestic workers. The ILO estimates that more girls under sixteen work in domestic service than in any other category of child labour. Their young age, isolation and separation from their families and peers, and near-total dependence on their employers exacerbate their vulnerability. As early as 1989, the ILO stated that "youngsters working as household domestic servants may be the most vulnerable and exploited children of all."
Migrant women and girls are another population of particular concern. Migrants comprise an increasingly large proportion of domestic workers and are often at heightened risk of exploitation due to policies linking workers' immigration status to individual employers, excessive recruitment fees, language barriers, and confiscation of passports.
Some governments have taken laudable steps to ensure domestic workers equal protection under their labour laws. However, such cases are sadly the exception rather than the norm. As the ILO has found, many governments have traditionally regarded domestic workers as "informal labour" and thus beyond the scope of regulation and scrutiny. Hidden in private households, women and girl domestic workers may remain unregistered, uncounted, and unprotected. They are often not recognized as workers, and are excluded from key labour protections accorded workers in the formal sector. The exclusion of domestic workers from these rights denies them equal protection of the law and has a discriminatory impact on women and girls, who constitute the vast majority of domestic workers.
Although the protections of many existing ILO conventions technically apply to domestic workers, traditional perceptions of domestic workers as "helpers" rather than "workers" and the location of employment in private households rather than commercial enterprises has meant that in practice, these protections have not extended to domestic workers. National-level legislation and existing conventions have often failed to address the unique circumstances of domestic workers and the need to provide additional and specific legal guidance to protect their rights.
Existing conventions fail to recognize the special circumstances of child domestic workers in particular. Despite the repeated concerns of the ILO's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) about the exploitation and abuse of child domestic workers, current ILO child labour standards make no explicit reference to their situation as a special cause for concern. Moveover, as the ILO has reported, ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment allows scope for ratifying States to exclude child domestic workers from national minimum age legislation.
Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International strongly support the drafting of a new Convention and Recommendation regarding decent work for domestic workers. As ILO Members provide their input regarding the content and scope of the proposed Convention and Recommendation, we encourage members to prioritize the following key elements:
- 1) Comprehensive legal protections: Labour protections in national law that apply to the formal sector should be extended to domestic workers to ensure equal protection under the law, including provisions related to minimum wages, hours of work, days of rest, freedom of association, etc. as well as additional provisions specific to the unique circumstances of domestic work such as living conditions and standby periods (see in particular, #15, #19, and #20 in the section following);
- 2) Special protections for child domestic workers: Because of its inherent risks to children, domestic work should be prohibited before age 15; child labour protections that apply to other working children (aged 15-17) should be extended to child domestic workers, and special measures taken to ensure their access to education (see #10, #20, and #36, following);
- 3) Special protections for migrant domestic workers: Temporary employment-based visas for migrant domestic workers should be nonspecific to employers and instead be administered through the government and centralized labour authorities since tying workers' immigration status to their employers is often a contributing factor to situations of exploitation and forced labour (see #14, following);
- 4) Explicit employment agreements: Domestic workers should have the right to explicit, written terms of employment, outlining their specific duties, hours, renumeration, days of rest, conditions of work, etc, (see #13, following);
- 5) Measures to protect domestic workers from physical, sexual, and psychological violence and harassment: Such measures should include confidential, accessible, and culturally-competent complaints mechanisms; prompt and thorough investigations of alleged abuse; prosecution of perpetrators; and removal and recovery services for workers who have experienced such abuse (see #14, following);
- 6) Monitoring: Both employers who employ domestic workers and placement agents should be subject to registration and monitoring mechanisms to ensure that they comply with their legal obligations, including prohibitions on charging excessive recruitment and placement fees (see #26 and #32, following).
Support by Members for a Convention with these key elements will be a critical step forward in protecting the rights and dignity of both adult and child domestic workers, and will be a strategic and powerful measure to help prevent forced labour, human trafficking, and the worst forms of child labour.
 Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For detailed reports of our findings, please visit (http://www.antislavery.org/homepage/resources/PDF/PDFbondedlabour.htm) and (https://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2006/07/27/swept-under-rug).
 ILO, Still so far to go: Child workers in the world today, 1989.
 See ILO, "Decent Work for Domestic Workers," Report IV(1) for the International Labour Conference, 99th Session, 2010, para 78.