ILO adopts landmark domestic workers treaty

There are thought to be around 100 million domestic workers around the world Keystone

To loud applause and tears, the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted a treaty to protect millions of domestic workers around the world.

This content was published on June 16, 2011 - 13:34
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

Under the new international legal instrument an estimated 100 million household employees should benefit from the right to vacation, maternity leave, unemployment insurance and regular working hours.

Governments, employers and unions meeting at the 100th ILO conference in Geneva voted on Thursday by 396 to 16 with 63 abstentions to approve the Domestic Workers Convention.

“I’m so elated. I’ve been waiting for this for years,” Shirley Pryce, a tearful domestic worker from Jamaica, who attended the conference with others from around the world, told “I’ve been abused and battered and now we have freedom.”

Carlos Roberto Lupi, Brazil’s labour minister, expressed his country’s support for the vote.

“This is a decisive step to eliminate discrimination. The 184 countries represented here have a social conscience offering this possibility to millions of people considered second-class citizens,” he told the conference audience after the vote.

Switzerland says the convention constitutes “better protection” for domestic workers throughout the world.

“It is for this reason and out of solidarity that Switzerland voted in favour,” explained a Swiss government representative.

“But we would still like to underscore that the convention defines standards and is very detailed. We will need to look at national practices and only then will Switzerland be in a position to decide on possible ratification.”

Written contracts

The convention, accompanied by a recommendation, will require governments to ensure domestic workers understand their rights, preferably through written contracts.

The document also offers domestic workers a full rest day every week, and prevents employers from requiring their employees to remain with the employer's household during their annual leave or rest days.

Despite intense negotiations, there was wide-ranging support for the initiative, especially from countries with large numbers of domestic workers such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa, as well as the United States and Gulf countries.

Based on compiled national statistics, the ILO said there were at least 52.6 million domestic workers in 2010, but it is thought the real number could be closer to 100 million.

Used and abused

Domestic workers are still among the most exploited and abused. Many are required to work irregular and long hours for low pay and are given insufficient rest. Live-in domestic workers in particular, can be on call at all times of the day.

They are also largely excluded from social protection such as maternity benefits and social security.

The convention will come into effect upon the ratification of just two countries. States can opt not to sign up, which could reduce the impact of the treaty but supporters say its strength lies in that it sets a standard and peer pressure could be influential.

“Countries that don’t keep up with that are going to feel that pressure, that they are not keeping up with contemporary standards,” said Human Rights Watch’s Nisha Varia.

Still problematic

There are currently around 50,000 unregistered domestic workers in Switzerland but this may be half the real figure, say experts.

Martine Bagnoud, a specialist on domestic workers at the Geneva-based Interprofessional Workers’ Union, said the situation in Switzerland was already “well advanced compared with other countries”.

As of January 1, 2011 privately employed domestic workers in Switzerland should earn at least SFr18.20 ($17.40) per hour, as part of a new standard national employment contract.

All cantons are required to adopt the minimum wage regulations by December 31, 2013, with the exception of canton Geneva, which has already put minimum wage guidelines into place.

“Having a minimum wage is a huge step forward,” said Bagnoud. “But the sector still suffers from lots of abuses. We meet lots of people who are paid only SFr600-700 a month and others who have been fired on the spot.”

She also criticised the fact that the new national minimum wage only applies to employees who work over five hours a week and that under a new federal decree domestic workers at diplomatic missions in Switzerland are subject to their own minimum working conditions with a lower salary than that in the national work contract.

Luis Cid, the founder of Union Without Borders (SSF), which defends diplomatic domestic workers, described the new decree and lower wage as a “disaster” and a “step backwards”.

He says he is currently dealing with some 30 cases of underpaid workers in diplomatic missions in Geneva.

ILO conference 2011

The International Labour Organization is holding its 100th International Labour Conference in Geneva from June 1 to June 17.
This year’s highlights include the presentation of the director-general's report on the need for a new era of social justice; the publication of a report on the situation of workers in the Occupied Territories; and a new report on hazardous forms of child labour.

Participants attending included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Switzerland was elected to the ILO’s executive committee for the 2011-2014 period.

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