New International Treaty Will Protect Domestic Workers

On June 16th The International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention on Domestic Workers, a treaty which will guarantee the labor rights of domestic workers around the globe. “Domestic workers” includes any workers who work in or for a household or households such as nannies, chauffeurs, and housekeepers. Human Rights Watch states that of the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide, “the vast majority are women and girls.” 7.5% of female employees worldwide work in the domestic sphere.

Many countries do not provide the protections to domestic workers that they afford those employed in other fields. For this reason, domestic workers face “a wide range of grave abuses and labor exploitation.” It is believed that in many countries these human rights violations are allowed to continue due to a lack of legal protections exacerbated by discrimination against women and girls.

“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.”

The new treaty demands that domestic workers have some of the basic labor rights that those who work in other spheres already enjoy. These rights include: “reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payment, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.”

The treaty applies to all domestic workers, including migrant workers and child laborers who are especially vulnerable to labor rights abuses. Migrant workers, who compose a large proportion of those employed in the domestic sphere, “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.” The Convention on Domestic Workers demands that migrant workers receive a contract that is enforceable in the country in which they are employed and calls for national governments to strengthen international cooperation.

The Treaty also helps children, who make up nearly 30% of all domestic workers worldwide. Prior to the convention, many national governments excluded domestic work from child labor laws, meaning that some children worked long hours at young ages. The treaty sets a minimum age for domestic work and ensures that work does not interfere with the education of children above that age. 

The United States played a leading role in advocating for strong protections of domestic workers in the treaty and was one of the 396 out of 475 delegates who voted for the convention. However, it is unlikely that the U.S. will ratify the convention as labor laws are primarily regulated by states and this convention would require numerous federal regulations. This is unfortunate as currently New York is the only state which has enacted a domestic workers’ bill of rights.

But despite the fact that the convention is unlikely to change federal law in the U.S., the increased awareness that the treaty will bring could prove beneficial.

The importance of this convention is to bring the plight of domestic workers into the national spotlight, not necessarily changing U.S. laws, said Ana Avendano, the assistant to the president at the AFL-CIO, who also participated in the ILO conference. In many parts of the world, domestic workers are explicitly excluded from labor laws and standards, she said.

“What happens to many workers in most cases is already illegal,” Avendano said. “When these workers complain about their conditions, now people are going to listen”

The International Labor Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers has the potential to give labor protections to millions of domestic workers around the world, the majority of which are women and girls. While the convention will not necessarily change U.S. law, it will likely increase awareness about the issue of labor exploitation and encourage people to respect and utilize existing laws which protect domestic workers. While the convention will not eradicate human rights violations of domestic workers, the international recognition of the need for domestic workers to be afforded the same rights as other workers is a step in the right direction. You can read more about the convention here.

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One Response to New International Treaty Will Protect Domestic Workers

  1. Rob says:

    Most of the things that were deliberated on at the convention have long been on the legal books of South Africa. In actaul fact they are being followed religiously.

    But there is a problem, South Africa is faced with a net inflow of foreign domestic workers who are ready to work for almost nothing, Where they come from there is nothing to fall back on.

    This is undermining the laws and the employment local maids. There lies the conondrum for South Africa. What is the way forward?

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