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LABOUR: Neither Servants nor Family Members, Simply Workers

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jun 16 2011 (IPS) - The world’s tens of millions of domestic workers finally won international recognition that they have the same basic labour rights as other workers, in a convention adopted Thursday at the annual meeting of the ILO.

Latin American domestics and their employers in "Common Place" photo exhibit by photographers Justine Graham and Ruby Rumié. Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

Latin American domestics and their employers in "Common Place" photo exhibit by photographers Justine Graham and Ruby Rumié. Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

The landmark treaty, approved by an overwhelming majority at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, states that “domestic workers are workers,” said ILO (International Labour Organisation) director general Juan Somavia. “They are neither servants nor members of the family.”

That is the main point of the Convention on Domestic Workers, and was the biggest obstacle in the discussions, Karin Pape, coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), told IPS.

It means “domestic workers are not helpers. We are not maids, and we are not servants. Certainly none of us should be slaves. We are workers,” said Pape.

Although the convention was approved by a vote of 396 to 16, with 63 abstentions, it was not an easy task.

Discussing the difficulties in reaching agreement on the new convention, ILO legal specialist on working conditions Martin Oelz said “It’s a new topic. This is a group of workers that is excluded in many countries from the labour legislation for various reasons – historical reasons, cultural reasons.”

That was a hurdle that had to be broken down, and “it took some time,” he said. The ILO, which has a tripartite system of government – trade unionists, employers and governments – began to deal with the issue as far back as 1965, he pointed out.

“But now, in a relatively short period of two years, this consensus was forged,” Oelz told IPS.

In first place, he said, many of the negotiators did not consider domestic employment as work. But “fortunately we could rely on the experience of a number of countries, for instance South Africa,” which as soon as apartheid came to an end in 1994 moved immediately to adopt legislation to protect domestic workers, he explained.

Oelz said the convention “really provides a basis, a framework” for giving this group of workers the dignity and respect they deserve.

The convention states that domestic work is still undervalued and invisible and is performed mainly by women and girls, who are often immigrants or members of disadvantaged communities and are particularly vulnerable to discrimination with respect to conditions of employment and work, and to other human rights abuses.

Based on national statistics from 117 countries, the ILO estimates that there are at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide, the large majority of whom are women and girls. But because of the hidden nature of this work, experts put the number as high as 100 million.

Somavia said the convention “goes to the heart of the informal economy,” where the lack of decent work is more marked. And domestic workers are no exception, he said.

For example, 56 percent of domestics around the world work in circumstances where there is no legislation limiting their working hours, and 45 percent do not have the right to even one day off a week, the ILO reports.

The countries that ratify the convention will be required to respect domestic workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and will have to take effective measures to eliminate all forms of forced labour, discrimination, and child labour.

The convention will also require governments to ensure that domestic workers understand their rights, preferably through written contracts, which should include the names of the employer and the employees, the terms and conditions of employment, such as the type of work to be performed, and the remuneration, method of calculation and periodicity of payments.

The contract should also specify the provision of food and accommodation, if applicable, the terms of repatriation of migrant workers, if applicable, the normal hours of work, the duration of the contract and the terms and conditions concerning termination of employment.

Under the new ILO standards, domestics have the right to overtime compensation, daily and weekly rest periods, and paid annual leave.

The convention states that “Members shall develop and implement measures for labour inspections” specifying “the conditions under which access to the home may be granted, with due respect for privacy.”

Parties to the new treaty will also be required to set a minimum age for domestic workers, and to make sure that the work of child domestic employees above that age does not interfere with their schooling.

In addition, domestic workers are to have a full day of rest every week, and cannot be forced to stay in the employer’s household during their rest days or annual leave.

“Victory at last,” said Isabel García-Gill, another expert with the IDWN. “Now comes the domestic work for governments: ratify and implement,” she remarked to IPS.

Only one government, that of Swaziland, voted against the convention, while the governments of the Czech Republic, El Salvador, Malaysia, Panama, Singapore, Sudan, Thailand and the UK abstained.

But along with the government of Swaziland, the representatives of the employers of 15 countries cast their votes against the convention.

The only workers’ delegate who did not vote in favour of the convention, but instead abstained, was the representative from Egypt.

During the negotiations, the governments of Bahrain, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates objected to the binding nature of the treaty, but ended up joining the majority in approving the convention.

The general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Sharan Burrow, said the international union movement “will continue to shed light on the working conditions of migrant domestic workers in the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.”

Burrow, who celebrated the adoption of the convention as “a great victory,” said migrant domestic workers in the Gulf, mainly women from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia, face “widespread oppression and violence”.

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