ILO Seeks Global Support for Domestic Worker Protection

25 October 2010
ILO Seeks Global Support for Domestic Worker Protection
Photo: AFP
Kuwaiti journalists attend a Human Rights Watch press conference in Kuwait City announcing a new report that shows abuse of domestic workers in Kuwait is rising, and maids in the Gulf emirate face prosecution when they try to escape, 6 Oct 2010 (file photo)

Steps to launch an international convention on domestic workers led by the United Nations are slowly gaining global support at a time of rising demand for domestic staff in the world economy. A senior U.N. International Labor Organization official is confident the convention - aimed at protecting domestic workers and children - will provide coverage against abuses.

The fight for labor rights for millions of domestic workers made significant gains this year during growing support for an International Labor Organization-backed convention, despite initial resistance from countries such as China and Indonesia.

Senior ILO official Manuela Tomei, who oversees work conditions and employment, said the convention - currently in draft form - would mark a major step in labor protection for domestic workers.

"Huge, because it will lay down what minimum protection is for domestic workers at the international level; knowing that nationally there are many countries that exclude from the scope of national legislation, domestic workers. So there is a problem about a lack of norms nationally that could help guide what decent treatment of domestic workers is," said Tomei.

In the June talks, more than 60 countries voted for a set of binding international standards in a convention to protect and empower domestic workers.

Asia has the largest number of domestic workers. China is reported to have up to 20 million domestic workers, while the ILO estimates Thailand has as many as 700,000 employed domestic workers. Efforts are underway in Indonesia to organize domestic workers with national networks.

Labor groups said Indonesia and China are among countries that appeared to initially resist the draft convention.

The convention deals with issues that include the right to work, discrimination, exclusion of child labor from domestic work, freedom to organize and engage in collective action, labor contracts, insurance, and rights to payment.

In the Middle East, rights groups recently have cited Kuwait for failure to protect the more than 600,000 domestic workers from abuses, including unpaid salaries, no weekend leave, enforced servitude, and inadequate food.

Tomei said a key concern remains the high incidence of child domestic workers in South Asia and Africa. Asia faces regular reports of abuse of domestic workers. Indonesia and Malaysia recently have held talks to reach agreement on protecting domestic workers. Tomei says the convention would mark a major step to preventing abuse once ratified.

"The convention if adopted, and the ILO organization could help and support the process of avoiding or reducing the incidence of abuses against domestic workers also. We hear a lot of abuses and violation of human rights of domestic workers. These certainly are tragic instances that need to be addressed," said Tomei.

Tomei also said, though, there are signs of progress with evidence of "proactive action" to assist domestic workers, as well as incentives for employers. Tomei said she is optimistic that in June 2011 a final decision on the international norms for agreement appeared "pretty good."