ILO Adopts New Protections for Domestic Workers

On 16 June 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (the Convention) and theRecommendation Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (the Recommendation). They represent an important recognition of the equal employment rights of domestic workers, a group which has been largely omitted from international agreements in the past, who are often not protected by domestic laws from which other workers benefit, and who are, as a result, particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

Equal Rigths Trust (ERT) welcomes these new international standards, particularly the Convention’s requirement that States respect, promote and realise the fundamental principle of the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation for all domestic workers (Article 3). The Convention is a welcome response to the poor working conditions experienced by many of the millions of domestic workers worldwide, an estimated 83 percent of whom are women or girls and many of whom are migrants. Due to the fact that their work is undertaken in private households, and that it is not covered by domestic employment law in many countries, domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and work, and they often experience harassment and violence in the workplace. The Convention requires governments to respond to this vulnerability and exclusion from labour law rights by providing protections equal to those provided to other workers, including in relation to working hours, minimum wage, overtime, daily and weekly rest periods, social security, and maternity (Articles 10 and 14). Governments are also required to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse (Article 5).

Discrimination on grounds of sex, the inequality experienced by women and the vulnerability of women and migrants is both a cause and a consequence of the various other human rights abuses suffered by domestic workers. The right to equality requires States to take steps to address this discrimination and inequality in the enjoyment of human rights. States have an obligation under a number of international agreements, to ensure equal protection of the law, and as such where the group excluded from protection by employment law is overwhelmingly dominated by women and migrants, States must take action to improve legal protection of domestic workers’ rights. This is made clear in Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, which requires States “to establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.”

The special vulnerability of domestic workers is well documented. It was recognised recently as a problem affecting mainly migrant women and children by the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in its first General Comment.

The Committee also noted that women domestic workers face additional risks related to their gender, including gender-based violence and that the problems affecting domestic workers are aggravated for non-documented migrant domestic workers, who can risk deportation if they seek protection from an abusive employer. Noting the omission of express references to domestic workers in national and international legal frameworks the Committee recommended that states ensure national legislation provides domestic workers with the same level of protection as other workers. Cases before the European Court of Human Rights have also highlighted the special vulnerability of domestic workers. Siliadin v France, for example, concerned the situation of a Togolese national who was forced into domestic work. She had her passport confiscated by her employer, was not paid, and was forced to work long hours with no time off. The Court found her treatment amounted to servitude and a violation of Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In light of the evidence of discrimination, violence and harassment against domestic workers, ERT welcomes the adoption of the Convention and Recommendation as a step forward in addressing discrimination and the lack of equal protection of women and migrants by employment law.

For the Convention to have the required impact it must not only be ratified by States but must also be fully implemented within domestic jurisdictions. The Convention will come into force 12 months after two countries have ratified it, and all member States of the ILO must be encouraged to ratify.

Speaking about the adoption of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers and the Recommendation Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, ERT’s Executive Director Dimitrina Petrova said: “We congratulate the members of the ILO for taking this critical step which addresses the particular vulnerabilities of domestic workers and aims to improve their working conditions and reduce their exposure to discrimination. Crucially, the Convention recognises that domestic workers, most of whom are women and girls, have the same right to legal protection in the area of employment as other workers. We urge member states to ratify the Convention rapidly and to fully implement it to ensure domestic workers’ employment rights are protected on an equal basis to those of other workers.”

For the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, click here.

For the Recommendation Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, click here.

For the ILO Press Release, click here.

The Equal Rights Trust is an independent international organisation whose purpose is to combat discrimination and promote equality as a fundamental human right and a basic principle of social justice.

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