The founding of a global federation of domestic workers

The founding of a global federation of domestic workers is a sign of the growing strength of the movement, and a key moment to assess progress for workers long excluded from basic labor protections, the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch said today. There are an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide – the majority of whom are women and girls, and many of whom are migrants.

In the past two years, 25 countries improved legal protections for domestic workers, with many of the strongest reforms in Latin America. Some of the biggest challenges loom in the European Union, which has a growing elderly population depending on the services domestic workers provide, and the Middle East and Asia, where progress has been weak and some of the worst abuses occur.

“Even though domestic workers provide critical services that families depend on – cooking, cleaning, and child care – we have faced discrimination and marginalization for generations,” said Myrtle Witbooi, chair of the International Domestic Workers Network. “That should end.”

Labor leaders from more than 40 countries met in Montevideo from October 26 to 28 to establish the International Domestic Workers Federation to organize domestic workers worldwide, share strategies across regions, and advocate for their rights.

IDWN, the ITUC, and Human Rights Watch are releasing a new 33-page report, “Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labor Reform.” The report charts ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, national labor law reforms, and the growing influence of emerging domestic workers’ rights movements.

According to the ILO, almost 30 percent of the world’s domestic workers are employed in countries where they are completely excluded from national labor laws, including weekly rest days, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, and overtime pay. Even when partially covered, domestic workers are often excluded from key protections such as minimum age requirements, maternity leave, social security, and occupational health measures.

On September 5, 2013, the Domestic Workers Convention entered into legal force. This groundbreaking treaty adopted in 2011 establishes the first global standards for domestic work. Under the new convention, domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as those available to other workers.

Ten countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention: Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Italy, Bolivia, Paraguay, South Africa, Guyana, and Germany. Several more are completing these processes. In July, the Council of the European Union adopted a draft decision authorizing EU member states to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention “in the interests of the [European] Union.”

“The momentum of ratifications and improved laws in Latin American nations and a number of other countries shows that governments are capable of protecting domestic workers,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC. “Governments that have lagged – particularly in Asia and the Middle East – need to act without delay.”

Despite recent legal advances in some countries (see report map on p.8), many domestic workers are still grossly underpaid and forced to work long hours, seven days a week. Denial of pay is a common abuse. Many women and girls are unable to leave households where they work, and may face psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.

Certain categories of domestic workers, including those who live in the household where they work, children, and migrants face heightened risk of abuse. Recent ILO research found that while child labor in other sectors has declined in recent years, child domestic labor increased by 9 percent between 2008 and 2012. International migrants may face exploitation linked to abusive recruitment practices, restrictive immigration policies, discrimination, and poor access to redress.

As the ILO, Human Rights Watch, IDWN, and the ITUC have documented, domestic workers can get trapped in situations of forced labor, including trafficking.

“This array of human rights abuses against domestic workers underlines the urgency for better laws, stronger enforcement, and a dramatic shift in how domestic work is valued,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Addressing and preventing these abuses will affect millions of lives.”

The report discusses reforms in countries as diverse as Brazil, India, Italy, Tanzania, and the United States, and assesses how domestic workers’ rights movements, operating at the grassroots, national, and regional levels, have succeeded. For example, ITUC spearheaded the “12 by 12” campaign in partnership with other unions and civil society groups to promote national ratifications of the Domestic Workers Convention. Advocacy for the campaign has fueled demonstrations, meetings with government officials, social media campaigns, membership drives, and new alliances among domestic workers and trade unions in more than 90 countries.

Organizing domestic workers has many challenges, both practical – in terms of limited time and mobility – and legal. In some countries, domestic workers are legally barred from forming their own unions or joining other unions, especially when they are also migrants. For example, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the United States deny domestic workers the right to form unions to fight for their rights.

Examples of national labor reforms highlighted in the report include:

1. Argentina set maximum working hours of 48 hours per week, a weekly rest period, overtime pay, annual vacation days, sick leave, and maternity protections in March 2013. It extended additional protections for live-in domestic workers and for children.

2. Braziladopted a constitutional amendment in March 2013, entitling its estimated 6.5 million domestic workers to overtime pay, unemployment insurance, a pension, a maximum 8-hour work day, and 44-hour work week.

3. A landmark court ruling in Kenya in December 2012 placed domestic workers under the protection of the labor law, extending to them the national minimum wage and social security benefits.

4. The Philippines passed a law in January 2013 requiring contracts and extending an improved minimum wage, social security, and public health insurance to an estimated 1.9 million domestic workers. The new law also prohibits employment agencies and employers from charging recruitment fees and makes them liable for payment of wages and provision of benefits.

5. Spain set requirements in November 2011 for a minimum wage, weekly and annual leave, maternity leave, compensation for stand-by time when employees are not working but required to be on call, and incorporated domestic workers into its social security scheme.

6. Venezuela extended a 40-hour work week, two weekly rest days, paid holidays, and a minimum wage to domestic workers in 2012.