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Domestic workers win legal recognition

By Gustavo Capdevila | Last updated: Jul 7, 2011 - 11:23:52 AM

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GENEVA (IPS/GIN) - The world's tens of millions of domestic workers finally won international recognition that they have the same basic labor rights as other workers, in a convention adopted at the annual meeting of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The landmark treaty, approved by an overwhelming majority at the International Labor Conference in Geneva, states that “domestic workers are workers,” said ILO 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 Ms. Pape.

Although the convention was approved June 16 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 labor 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.

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, Mr. Olez explained.

Mr. 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. Fifty-six 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.