(Geneva) - The adoption by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on June 16, 2011, of a new, groundbreaking treaty to extend key labor protections to domestic workers will protect millions of people who have been without guarantees of their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments, trade unions, and employers' organizations that make up the ILO overwhelmingly voted to adopt the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide, the vast majority of whom are women and girls.
ILO members spent three years developing the convention to address the routine exclusion of domestic workers from labor protections guaranteed to other workers, such as weekly days off, limits to hours of work, and a minimum wage. Domestic workers face a wide range of grave abuses and labor exploitation, including excessive working hours without rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and trafficking.
"Discrimination against women and poor legal protections have allowed abuses against domestic workers to flourish in every corner of the world," said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This new convention is a long overdue recognition of housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers as workers who deserve respect and equal treatment under the law."
Key elements of the convention require governments to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers, including for working hours, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, daily and weekly rest periods, social security, and maternity protection. The new standards also oblige governments to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, and to ensure effective monitoring and enforcement.
The negotiations over the past two years have included contentious debates over such subjects as working hours for live-in domestic workers, in-kind payments such as housing, and labor inspections in private homes.
Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and the United States played a leading role in advocating strong protections, as did many other governments from Africa and Latin America. The European Union registered the most concerns, often advocating weaker and more flexible provisions.
Swaziland was the only government that did not vote in favor of the convention. El Salvador, Malaysia, Panama, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sudan, the Czech Republic, and Thailand abstained from the vote.
Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), along with Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, reversed early opposition to a legally binding convention and expressed support in the latest round of negotiations and final vote.
"Today's vote shows a new consensus that just because domestic work takes place in private homes is no excuse for governments to abandon their responsibility to ensure these workers' labor rights," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. "All governments should bring their national laws in line with this landmark treaty and ratify it as soon as possible."
The ILO says that children make up nearly 30 percent of the world's domestic workers. Many national child labor laws currently exclude domestic workers, meaning that children can work for long hours at young ages. Their separation from their families and near-total dependence on their employers exacerbate their vulnerability, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch investigations on child domestic workers in El Salvador, Guinea, Indonesia, Morocco, and Togo have found that some children begin work as early as age 6 and work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. One Human Rights Watch study in Indonesia found that only 1 of 45 child domestic workers interviewed was attending school. These young workers are also vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
The convention requires governments to set a minimum age for domestic work and to ensure that work by child domestic workers above that age does not interfere with their education. An accompanying recommendation urges governments to limit strictly the working hours of child domestic workers and to prohibit domestic work that would harm their health, safety, or morals.
"Millions of girls enter domestic work hoping it will lead to a better life, but instead, sacrifice their schooling and their future for low wages and long hours," Becker said. "This convention will give them a real chance to continue their education and break out of poverty."
Migrants constitute an increasingly large proportion of domestic workers, and their earnings constitute a significant proportion of the billions of dollars in remittances sent to developing countries each year. However, migrant domestic workers are often at heightened risk of exploitation due to national policies that link workers' immigration status to individual employers as well as excessive recruitment fees, language barriers, and employers' confiscation of passports.
Human Rights Watch investigations across Asia and the Middle East have documented the failure by many governments to monitor recruitment agencies that impose heavy debt burdens or misinform migrant domestic workers about their jobs. Recruitment-related abuses, domestic workers' isolation in private homes, and inadequate labor and immigration laws contribute significantly to forced labor, trafficking, and domestic servitude. Despite the flows of millions of domestic workers across borders, international cooperation has been weak and sporadic.
The new convention contains detailed requirements for governments to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints, and prohibit the practice of deducting domestic workers' salaries to pay recruitment fees. The convention also stipulates that migrant domestic workers must receive a written contract that is enforceable in the country of employment and that governments should strengthen international cooperation.
"Households in many countries are increasing their demand for migrant domestic workers to care for their children and the elderly," Varia said. "These new standards go a long way to value the important services these workers provide, and to put systems in place not only to respond to abuses, but prevent them in the first place."
Of 475 votes cast by governments, workers, and employers, 396 delegates voted for the convention, 16 voted against, and 63 abstained.