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Economic Rights And Justice For Domestic Workers

Posted in Labour & Work on October 24th, 2012 by

FRIDAY FILE: Domestic workers contribute greatly to the global economy. They bolster local and foreign economies by taking on care-giving roles, and migrant workers send home remittances that form a substantial part of their home countries’ gross domestic product. Yet for a long time domestic labour has been unregulated and domestic workers have experienced violations of their economic rights and faced barriers in accessing justice.

This article is part of a series of Friday Files to explore some of the issues and debates related to the AWID 2012 Forum theme and draw the connections between women’s rights issues and economic power.

In June 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C189). Ratification has been slow but the 12 by 12 Campaign aims to get at least 12 countries to ratify the convention in 2012.

AWID interviewed Marieke Koning of the International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC) on the implications of C189 for women’s economic rights and justice.

By Kathambi Kinoti

AWID: What is the situation of the Convention since it was adopted in June last year?

Marieke Koning (MK): “This is the end of modern day slavery!” were the words of domestic workers when they witnessed the historical adoption of Convention 189 (C189) and Recommendation 201 on domestic workers rights at the ILO Conference in June 2011. For them and the 50 – 100 million domestic workers around the world, the adoption of C189 meant international recognition and respect for domestic work; availability of an international instrument they can use to claim their rights; and the potential to pull millions of informal economy workers into formal jobs.

Two ratifications will bring C189 into force. The first ratification, from the Philippines is expected soon and there are 30 more potential ratifications between 2012 and 2014.  New legislation and reforms are being adopted and anticipated in Indonesia, India, Singapore and Spain.  But we need remain alert as parliament planned to postpone discussions in Indonesia and high hopes for ratification in some countries have been tempered due to changing political climates including focus on national elections.

AWID: How did the economic power wielded by female migrant and domestic workers influence the process leading up to the adoption of the Convention?

MK: The fact that migrant domestic workers are contributing to their countries’ economies by taking up paid care work thus enabling other women to participate in work outside the home was a strong negotiation point for the adoption of C189.

Negotiations at the ILO Conference in June 2010 and June 2011 were intense and from the start there was the view that ‘something needed to be done’, but employers and most governments were in favour of only a Recommendation. A Convention, when ratified, obliges governments to bring their national legislation in line with it. The trade union delegation, including domestic workers unions, presented multiple examples and arguments for the necessity of a Convention. Highlighting similarities in abuse and exploitation across countries; they referenced existing legislation in countries from the North and the South. The support for a Convention increased when governments such as South Africa and Brazil started to talk on behalf of their regions and showed strong political will to defend the adoption of a Convention.

AWID: How does C189 address issues of fair wages, benefits and working conditions? What implications does it have on women’s economic status and power?

MK: Since domestic work is traditionally done by women at home it is not seen as a serious profession. It is not valued, recognized or respected.  For too long tens of millions of domestic workers have been excluded from national legislation, are underpaid or not paid at all, work very long hours, are exploited and abused. Work performed by domestic workers is not visible and is isolated because they work inside the home. Many are kept as virtual prisoners or slaves, not being allowed to leave the house or communicate with their families.

The adoption of the C189 is historical. It recognizes domestic work as work and stipulates the minimum rights domestic workers should enjoy. When ratified, the Convention will strengthen the economic power of millions of women domestic workers – they have the right to a minimum wage with deductions only in exceptional circumstances that are clearly set out.

C189 refers to the equal treatment between domestic workers and workers generally in relation to normal hours of work, overtime compensation, periods of daily and weekly rest and paid annual leave. ‘Standby’[i] or ‘on call hours’ are now recognized as hours of work. Domestic workers will have access to social protection, maternity protection, health and safety benefits. These provisions will significantly improve the economic power of domestic workers.

Employers and domestic workers are now required to sign a contract so that there is clarity on the terms and conditions of their employment and live-in domestic workers have the right to decide whether they want to live in the household or not.

They will have access to courts, which halts to the abusive practices of many employment agencies. Further, C189 aims to change the lives of millions of women and girls who are trapped in child domestic work and forced labour.

Finally, the C189 provides domestic workers with the right to organise, collective bargaining and to form trade unions. This fundamental right is denied in most national labour legislation, but with these rights domestic workers can finally defend and negotiate better rights in law and practice and in collective bargaining agreements.

AWID: What is the 12 by 12 campaign?

MK: The 12 by 12 campaign is aiming for 12 ratifications of C189 in 2012 and organizing domestic workers in trade unions and strengthening their unions. Twelve ratifications in 2012 is the minimum goal – we must have a substantial number of ratifications in 2012 to ensure the Convention maintains its status as a valuable international instrument.

The ITUC launched the 12 by 12 campaign[ii] on December 19, 2011 with the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN) as a key partner of the campaign since their organization connects domestic workers unions and networks worldwide.

We have 12 by 12 teams campaigning in 73 countries! And the number of countries is growing each month. The campaign teams sparked activism worldwide and offer an umbrella for coalition building between trade unions, domestic workers unions and migrant, human rights and women’s organizations  which will maximize the pressure on governments. Our strategies include putting C189 high on the agenda of tripartite meetings of trade unions, governments and employers; organizing meetings with members of parliament to increase support for ratification, organizing public events and actions in front of Parliaments.

AWID: Some countries are well on their way to ratifying the Convention: Belgium, Peru, the Philippines and South Africa. Why do you think their particular internal/ international dynamics are conducive to their ratifying the Convention?

MK: Most countries that are close to ratification were sensitized on domestic workers issues and took action to change their labour legislation to address some of the most basic needs of domestic workers.  Some countries played an outstanding role during the negotiations at the ILO Conference such as the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, Namibia, Australia and Uruguay. In the case of the Philippines, the government knows that by ratifiying C189 it will be protecting the millions of its citizens who work in other countries as domestic workers and national domestic workers will also benefit significantly from such ratification. The Philippines government set up a Technical Working Group with trade unions, including domestic workers unions and migrant women’s organizations to facilitate regular consultation on the ratification process. Similar processes are taking place in South Africa and Brazil.

In other countries trade unions took up a strong commitment (e.g. Scandinavian countries) and put C189 high on the tripartite agenda. But nothing is a given. In Peru where we had high hopes for ratification, the initial support for C189 almost vanished after the government elections. This is why the 12 by 12 campaign teams need to be on the alert to achieve a maximum of ratifications by the end of this year.

AWID: What next for monitoring and access to remedies for contraventions?

MK: Countries that have ratified are required to apply it in law and in practice, which can be a lengthy process for some governments. Other governments, where laws are compliant may require few to no adaptations in their national legislation. There are countries that may not to ratify C189 but use the ILO standards as a model for laws and policy directions.

The countries that ratify are required to regularly report to the ILO on implementation. In many countries the ratified Convention is directly applicable in domestic law, which means that a court would be able to use the rights as set out in the Convention when settling legal disputes involving the rights of domestic workers. In addition the ILO has complaint mechanisms in place that can be used by e.g. trade unions to file a complaint where C189 is not properly implemented.

C189 is a minimum standard. When ratified domestic workers have the right to organise and form trade unions. This way they build up their collective negotiation power and can negotiate further improvements – in law and practice – with employers and the government, which will bring justice to millions of women domestic workers.

Be Informed, Get Involved!

[i] Standby or on-call hours, are outside normal working hours when a domestic worker is called up to work, for instance to help tend a sick child.

[ii] The 12 by 12 campaign is now a platform with multiple partners: the IDWN, the Global Union Federations IUF and PSI, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Human Rights Watch, Migrant Forum Asia (MFA), Caritas, Solidar and World Solidarity. More organizations are expected to follow


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