Michelle Petrotta, Program Officer, International Labor Rights Forum
Domestic work is, and historically has been, invisible and undervalued. Domestic workers are informal
workers generally unprotected by national labor laws, which results in their vulnerability to unfair and often abusive treatment. The fact that domestic work takes place in a private household behind closed doors, where workers are isolated, with little access to support networks, increases the potential for labor exploitation and abuse. The majority of domestic workers are women and girls.
In some countries, even where laws have been passed providing minimum wages ad conditions such as working hours, leave days, and compulsory registration with labor departments, domestic work is still perceived as informal work where labor rights are often violated. In South Africa the Domestic Worker Sector Law was promulgated in 2002, but government enforcement of the law has been weak due to lack of resources and capacity. The South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) has expressed concern about poor enforcement of the law. The union faces great obstacles organizing due to the private nature of the sector, resulting in 4,500 members out of the estimated one million domestic workers in South Africa. Because workers are isolated, labor rights violations go unnoticed and unreported.
During a recent conference, entitled "Exploited, Undervalued and Essential," hosted by the University of Western Cape’s Social Law Project, academics and experts made recommendations for ways to improve conditions of work for domestic workers, such as local and municipal administration of regulations to facilitate monitoring and collective bargaining and tax incentives for employers to register employees with the Unemployment Insurance Fund.
The advocacy and mobilization on domestic worker issues is not new in South Africa, however the conference contributed to recent ongoing research and consultation related to the drafting of a proposed ILO instrument on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that many labor organizations and some governments hopes to have adopted by 2011.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) started the process of discussions about the potential for an international instrument for domestic workers in January 2009. The ILO sent a law and practice report along with a questionnaire to ILO member states, seeking input on developing an international instrument on domestic work, and important standards important. Governments consulted with workers’ organizations and employers’ associations, and by August 2009, they submitted their responses. In January 2010, the ILO sent a second report examining the responses of the member states.
The first discussion on the domestic workers instrument will take place in June 2010 at the International Labor Conference in Geneva, where a decision will be made on the form of the draft instrument(whether it will be a Convention or a Recommendation or both). Conventions are subject to ratification by member States, and are the rules that ratifying States undertake to comply. On the other hand, recommendations are instruments that formulate principles for international regulation and invite member states to take legislative steps in order to comply. Recommendations are not subject to ratification.
By August 2010, the ILO will send a third report to countries, containing the draft instrument to the Member States, and they will have the opportunity to submit comments by the end of November 2010. By March 2011, the ILO will send two more reports to member states, an examination of responses received, and a revised draft instrument based on comments. In June 2011, the proposed domestic worker instrument will be discussed at the International Labor Conference, and adopted or rejected.
Child and migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and labor exploitation because they are separated from their families, and the lack of health, safety, and overtime regulations governing their work. Child migrant domestic workers’ exposure to potential abuse is two fold when they are in unfamiliar countries or cities, with inadequate resources to escape from abusive environments. ILRF is advocating for minimum standards regarding child labor to be an integral part of the proposed ILO Convention.
The proposed convention on decent work for domestic workers is seen as an important first step toward decent work for domestic workers. However, many governments are not thrilled at the possibility of an ILO domestic work Convention, calling for serious changes to national legislations to be implemented in order to protect domestic workers’ rights. An ILO Convention on decent work for domestic workers would prepare the political landscape for changes to be made to vastly improve domestic workers’ lives. The recognition that domestic work should be recognized as employment under national labor legislation, in formal contracts that stipulate decent work conditions with remuneration, with effective monitoring, complaint, and enforcement mechanisms for labor rights violations is necessary to protect the rights of isolated domestic workers.