ILO Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers –
A Tool for Rights, Not an End in Itself
Domestic work is the most important source of waged employment for women workers, especially those from rural areas and with little or no formal education. Within Asia, an estimated 800,000 Asian women migrate abroad for work annually, and a majority of them are engaged as domestic workers, in Southeast and East Asia, and in the Middle East. Even larger numbers of women are employed in their own counties as domestic workers. Yet domestic work takes place in private households, and thus is often regarded not as ‘real work’ and tends to be unregulated, and the workers unorganized. Many factors inhibit their organization, including the unpaid domestic work most women do in the home, which lowers the ‘market value’ and social value of domestic work; the difficulty of reaching individual workers in people’s private homes; and lack of defined working hours.
Still, domestic workers do have unions, and with or without support from mainstream unions and union federations, they have organized to various degrees and made some significant achievements. In Asia, an Asian Domestic Workers’ Network has been formed, which brings together local domestic workers’ unions in the region, and in turn forms part of the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN) that stand as the core structure representing membership-based domestic workers’ unions across the world. One of the major activities of this Network now, is to fight for establishment of a new ILO Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers in 2010.
In August, a meeting was held in Hong Kong among domestic workers unions, concerned NGOs, regional networks and ILO regional officers, who are working together to strengthen rights of domestic workers. The core aim of the meeting was to gain consensus and consolidate activities to implement an ILO Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers. At the same time the meeting provided the occasion for debates and sharing of initiatives regarding advocacy for the Convention at the regional and global levels.
One major issue arising when discussing the ILO Convention on the Rights of Domestic Worker was that of domestic workers’ own representation in the drafting and passing of the Convention.
As noted by Fish Ip of IDWN, sometimes conferences about domestic work are held in which none of the participants present are themselves domestic workers; rather all participants are others who are speaking for them! Hence a strong push must be made, and emphasis placed on, ensuring that domestic workers themselves are involved in the decision-making and planning of the ILO Convention of Domestic Workers that will be ratified.
To an extent even greater than workers in other occupations, domestic workers have difficulty in getting time to travel and attend conferences, and often even to engage in regular union activities near their own workplaces. In many countries of Asia, still, domestic workers have no legally required vacation days, and even no rest days in the week or month. In Malaysia, for instance, it was only after a series of high profile cases of domestic worker abuse that domestic workers have now been granted the right to one day off per week. Moreover, national laws in many countries reject the rights of domestic workers to join and form unions.
Thus the support of mainstream labour unions and federations, and of NGOs, remains vital. So many social forces contribute to the depreciation of value placed on their work, even though it is the very work that allows families to run, parents to work, and children to be cared for. One union of metalworkers, from Indonesia, FSPMI, shared that it had raised at its federation the intent to support domestic workers’ rights, as they shared the common problem of abuse of migrant workers.
Another issue was raised, of how the ILO convention would be pushed to the national agenda, in countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, where freedom of association is very lacking, thus making organizing activities very risky for the workers. Workers in those countries still may try to organize domestic workers by approaching workers at markets, in religious institutions, through health centres, and so on. Yet, given the dangers to the workers who try to organize, solidarity and external pressure on these countries regarding the labour conditions of domestic workers is particularly important. Thus, taking a global strategy, the countries where ratification was more likely should be targeted first, employing advocacy and social coalition-building at all levels to achieve it – so that these countries could in turn exert their influence over those ‘difficult’ countries, to greater effect than might be possible through the power of only those domestic workers in the country able and willing to take the risks of organizing.
What can the ILO convention achieve? Countries ratify, but they may not implement and enforce those standards; then what good has the convention achieved? Should the workers’ organizations aim for the ‘lowest common denominator’ and agree to weaker provisions in the convention, so more countries would agree and ratify? Or should the convention be kept in the strongest terms possible, so that it best fulfils its role of providing guidelines for an international standard of labour practices. The representatives at the Hong Kong meeting agreed upon the latter, and decided to proceed both in joint campaigns to raise awareness and advocate nationally, and to focus on gaining strong support from ‘already converted’ countries that could influence other ‘less cooperative’ countries.
The question was also raised, whether other ILO conventions would not capture all the rights domestic workers are seeking to get included in this ILO convention. However participants felt that several aspects of domestic work are unique, and contribute to severe exploitation and overwork, such as the often unclear working hours and private time, and the isolation from possible observers in case of abuse.
The ILO conventions are not meaningful as ends in themselves, but as the beginning of change. Once ratified, they provide more pressure for the governments to push the conventions into law and practice – and are subject to detailed supervision by the ILO, which will place ongoing pressure on the government to see that the conventions get effectively applied.
The ILO Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers should not occupy the space of main goal for domestic workers, but provide a tool which, in the pursuit of achieving it, could raise the public’s awareness of domestic workers’ working conditions and need to have legal rights and protections as workers.
The meeting agreed that around 10 December 2009, International Human Rights Day, activities of their organizations would converge to expose domestic workers’ situations, demand their labour rights, and demand an ILO Convention for their rights. All agreed that the campaign should constantly take care to raise the participation of domestic workers themselves, not as objects of salvation by others but as determiners of their own fates. Sahra Ryklief, International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (commonly known as IFWEA), from South Africa shared the experience of domestic workers in South Africa, which showed that it is a myth that organizing domestic workers is impossible. The situation in many Asian countries, where domestic workers are not even regarded as working people with labour rights, was one exactly faced by domestic workers before in South Africa; but change was possible and change is equally possible in Asia.
The vibrancy and relevance of the labour movement essentially dwells in its constant defense of those most vulnerable to the pressure of capital. When this stops, the movement stagnates and workers get divided. The movement to defend domestic workers’ rights challenges other mainstream labour unions to decide: will they protect their own rights only, or see that lower work standards of others only contributes to one’s own weak power? Even further, the labour movement may see: achieving payment and decent working conditions for domestic workers will contribute to higher social value given to the domestic work women almost universally do, unpaid. For women’s rights as well as workers’ rights, domestic workers’ labour rights are a task for both the domestic workers and workers of other sectors.
Decent Work for Domestic Workers, ILO, Labour Education 2007/3-4, No. 148-9, 2007.