The International Labour Organisation has overwhelmingly backed a new convention to protect domestic workers as governments try to establish a universal standard to protect as many as 100 million people worldwide.
According to data from individual countries, more than 52.5 million people worldwide earn their living as domestic workers. However, their often unofficial status in their host countries makes it likely that the real figure is closer to 100 million, the ILO said.
“Domestic workers represent the largest category of workers that continue to face huge deficits in terms of legal protection,” said Manuela Tomei, head of the Conditions of Work and Employment Programme office at the ILO.
According to the UN group, domestic work is one of the oldest occupations, but because it is carried out in private homes, it remains one of the most difficult to monitor.
The new convention grants domestic workers one full day off per week, as well as overtime pay or vacation compensation for working extra hours. It also requires governments to inform domestic workers of their rights and ensures their right to organise as well as access to courts to file worker complaints.
Underscoring the risks faced by domestic workers, a Malaysian couple was charged on Thursday with the murder of their Indonesian maid. Police suspect that the victim, Isti Komariyah, 26, was beaten to death on June 5 by her employers. Indonesia banned its citizens from working as domestic workers in Malaysia in 2009 after reports of widespread abuse.
The ILO treaty, which was adopted with 396 votes for, 16 against and 63 abstentions, will come into effect upon its ratification by two countries. A handful of countries, including Brazil, Namibia and South Africa, have already said they would ratify the accord. The ILO hopes the convention will come into force within two years.
The convention seeks to define the status of domestic workers and states unambiguously that such employees should be afforded the same rights as other employees in a particular country. “In many countries, domestic workers are not regarded as workers, and are not covered by existing work codes and laws,” Tomei explained.
Great Britain said it could not vote for the convention as it was "unable to ratify in the foreseeable future", the French news agency AFP reported. Britain noted that it was not practical to apply the same health and safety standards – including inspections – to private households employing domestic workers. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also abstained.
Tomei said certain issues sparked lively debate at the ILO ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“How do we strike the right balance between allowing labour inspections and people’s right to privacy within their own homes?” she asked.
Tomei said the delegates searched for a compromise text that was worded in such a way as to allow flexibility. “[The convention] does not impose inspections, so it can be applied in a meaningful way to the broad range of legal regimes across the planet,” she said.
At a press conference after the vote, ILO director Juan Somavia said the convention was a historic step in applying systems of standards to informal economies. Domestic work is largely excluded from social programmes such as maternity benefits and social security. This often perpetuates unjust social models and disproportionally affects women, the ILO has noted.
“Mindsets need to be changed,” Tomei told FRANCE 24. “We’re slowly shifting from considering domestic work as a master/servant relationship to a worker/employer relationship.”
While Swaziland was the only government to vote against the treaty, the power of the convention to improve the lives of domestic workers remains difficult to foresee. Tomei admitted the convention will not change conditions overnight and that its effects largely depend on the will of individual member states.
Countries will not have to implement the treaty until after it is ratified and others can opt not to sign up, further reducing the convention’s impact.
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