Domestic workers make up a considerable proportion of the informal labour market and form one of its most vulnerable groups, according to data compiled by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
They work in private homes, often without official papers or clear terms of employment, and they are frequently beyond the reach of labour legislation. There are currently at least 53 million domestic workers in the world, but this figure does not include children who perform domestic duties, which means that the figure is rising at a constant pace in both developed and developing countries.
The most serious problems is that these workers face are deplorable conditions, exploitation and human rights abuses. This is why the ILO is committed to protecting them, promoting equality and equal opportunities, and improving living and working conditions.
Their global strategy consists of strengthening national powers and institutions by influencing government policy and legislative reform, as well as encouraging the ratification and implementation of the 2011 Convention 189 & Recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
They also decided to support organisations for domestic workers and their employers, and strengthen the knowledge base and political tools at their disposal.
They did so, bearing in mind the fact that members of these professions usually earn less than the average wage, and seldom benefit from sickness leave, paid holiday or free time.
If an employee takes a day off because they are ill they are likely to be fired without any kind of unemployment compensation, while in some parts of the world they could even be subjected to physical or sexual abuse, isolation, conditions similar to slavery, or even death – which is very common amongst the women who constitute 80 per cent of the total workforce.
Regarding this statistic, the ILO has stated that this percentage is increasing due to the pressures of demographic and social change, in conjunction with rising wealth inequalities, workplaces that are unsuitable for family life, and inadequate public policy. In countries like Brazil and South Africa domestic work is the principal source of female employment, but this may also happen in industrialized nations such as the UK or France.
This kind of employment can contribute to the positive development of family life for many families by guaranteeing childcare, and ensuring that members of the family who are older, ill or disabled can be cared for in the home, since their extended family can rely upon their employees.
However, domestic workers usually come from the lower echelons of society, have limited formal education and belong to ethnic groups which suffer discrimination and marginalisation.
This explains and reinforces the image of domestic work as second class, and the perception of domestic workers as second-class citizens, because on the whole this sector is poorly regulated and informal in every country.
This was until just over a year ago, when the ILO endeavoured to right this wrong by adopting a new convention which established minimum levels of industrial protection for employees, the right to social security and a minimum wage, equitable working conditions and meaningful protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.
During the international conference of the ILO last June, the organization also approved an accord which sets out, moreover, the right to an 8-hour working day and a weekly relaxation period of at least 24 consecutive hours.
Whilst the data shows that many countries in South America, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as industrialized nations, have already increased minimum levels of protection for domestic workers, in most middle-eastern and Asian countries the principle of equality is still an unfulfilled promise.
Similarly, since the overwhelming majority of the employees in these markets are women, maternity rights are a pressing concern.
Over a third of all domestic workers currently have no right to maternity leave or the cash payments that are usually association with the protection of women during pregnancy.
As well as covering all of these people, the ILO’s Convention 189 & Recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers also contains special measures to protect those who are exposed to specific additional risks due to their young age, their nationality and their housing conditions, amongst other factors.
However, domestic work continues to be undervalued, under-recognized, and primarily populated by women and young girls, many of whom are migrants or belong to disadvantaged communities.
By raising the issue of domestic work, the ILO is working in tandem with UN Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN bodies created by the various human rights treaties, and the special procedures of the Human Rights Council. (PL)
(Translated by: Roz Harvey)