Ledys Sanjuan Mejia, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
As many other middle class people in Colombia, in my household we have hired a domestic worker. The woman raised me and is part of the family. So as I was researching for this blog I looked at her and thought how much of her fate as a domestic worker depends on luck, rather than the power of the rule of law and the state. Like her, many women and girls depend on the benevolence of the families that employ them to treat them with respect and dignity. The domestic workers’ struggle raises issues about gender, child work and how we understand and change ‘what is considered work?’
Domestic workers fight for the right to be recognized as workers. The isolation and privacy in which they work prevents them from being recognized as workers, and as a result, prevents them from the ability to seek justice when their rights are violated. During the 99th Session of International Labor Conference in June 2010, the International Labor Organization (ILO) discussed a draft standard to be voted upon by member states during the June 2011 conference. The ILO recognizes that domestic workers are usually excluded from States’ legislation. At the conference, governments expressed reservations about regulating domestic work as they could not monitor families and households in the same ways as companies, due to the conflict between the right to privacy and domestic workers’ rights to safety and protection.
Abuses of domestic workers’ labor rights are common. In the United States, for example, 93% of domestic workers are women, many who suffer from physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Because many domestic workers are not given permanent or contract work, they are unable to exercise their right to freedom of association and the benefits bargained for by trade unions through collective bargaining, such as a living wage, eight-hour workdays, and pensions among other benefits. The new draft instrument by the ILO, if ratified by countries, will change the way domestic work is understood within labor law. According to the AFL-CIO and other labor rights advocates, the new instrument should “include the freedom to form unions, elimination of forced labor, abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination.” ILRF supports the Convention, and advocates that the instrument “provide(s) direction on the standards that must be minimally set to eradicate child domestic labor.” Because isolation behind the doors of private homes hides domestic work from the public eye, it is necessary to recognize domestic workers in national labor legislation, in order to allow domestic workers a venue to demand enforcement of their rights, and to ensure children are not being exploited for domestic work.
Domestic workers in the state of New York made great strides on June 1st 2010, when the state of New York passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which “guarantees domestic workers basic workplace rights like paid vacation and sick days, overtime pay, and at least one day off per week.” This victory signals the start of “domestic work being recognized as work” in the United States.
Domestic workers fight for their right to be part of the working class and defended by trade unions, for the “dream that one day all work will be valued equally.”