Numbers of domestic workers have increased, but working benefits have not …
A domestic worker, also known as a servant, is a person who works within the employer’s household. Domestic workers perform a variety of household services for an individual or a family, from providing care for children and elderly dependents to cleaning and household maintenance, known as housekeeping. Responsibilities may also include cooking, doing laundry and ironing, food shopping and other household errands. Some domestic workers live within the household where they work.
In the course of twentieth-century movements for labor rights, women’s rights and immigrant rights, the conditions faced by domestic workers and the problems specific to their class of employment have come to the fore. In 2011, the International Labour Organization adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers which covers decent work conditions for domestic workers.
Recent ILO estimates based on national surveys and/or censuses of 117 countries, place the number of domestic workers at around 53 million. But the ILO itself states that “experts say that due to the fact that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million”.
The ILO also states that 83% of domestic workers are women and many are migrant workers.
Servant is an older English term for “domestic worker”, though not all servants worked inside the home.
The ILO estimates that 30% of the nearly 53 million domestic workers worldwide do not enjoy any legal protection, and 45% of them are not entitled to any weekly rest or paid leave.
ILO’s Malte Luebker told Al Jazeera English that Asia has the least protection for domestic workers and stressed the importance for those countries to ratify the newly adopted ILO convention on domestic workers.
Current situation around the world
Domestic workers may live at home, though they are usually “live-in” domestics, meaning they receive room and board as part of their salaries. In some countries, because of the large gap between urban and rural incomes, and the lack of employment opportunities in the countryside, even an ordinary middle class urban family can afford to employ a full-time live-in servant. The majority of domestic workers in China, Mexico, India, and other populous developing countries, are people from the rural areas who are employed by urban families.
In Guatemala, it is estimated that eight percent of all women work as domestic workers.
They hardly have any legal protection.
According to Guatemalan labor law, domestic work is “subject neither to a working time statute nor to regulations on the maximum number of working hours in a day”.
Legally, domestic helpers are only entitled to ten hours of free time in 24 hours, and one day off per week. But very often, these minimal employment laws are disregarded, and so are basic civil liberties.
In Brazil, domestic workers must be hired under a registered contract and have most of the rights of any other workers, which includes a minimum wage, remunerated vacations and a remunerated weekly day off. It is not uncommon, however, to hire servants without registering them. Since servants come almost always from the lower, uneducated classes, they are sometimes ignorant of their rights, especially in the rural zone. Nevertheless, domestics employed without a proper contract sometimes sue their employers to get compensation from abuses.
In the United States, domestic workers are excluded from many of the legal protections afforded to other classes of worker, including the provisions of the National Labour Relations Act. Traditionally domestic workers have mostly been women and are likely to be immigrants.
In July 2011, at the annual International Labour Conference, held by the ILO, conference delegates adopted the Convention on Domestic Workers by a vote of 396 to 16, with 63 abstentions. The Convention recognizes domestic workers as workers with the same rights as other workers. On 26 April 2012, Uruguay was the first country to ratify the convention.
Domestic workers still experience poor legal protection, the ILO warns
ILO’s Martin Oelz, Legal Specialist on Working Conditions, presents the key findings of a new ILO report – Domestic workers across the world – which follows the adoption, in June 2011, of the ILO Convention and Recommendation on domestic work.
Child Domestic Workers
The use of children as domestic servants continues to be common in parts of the world, such as Latin America or parts of Asia. Such children are very vulnerable to exploitation: often they are not allowed to take breaks or are required to work long hours; many suffer from a lack of access to education, which can contribute to social isolation and a lack of future opportunity.
UNICEF considers domestic work to be among the lowest status, and reports that most child domestic workers are live-in workers and are under the round-the-clock control of their employers. Some estimates suggest that among girls, domestic work is the most common form of employment.
Child domestic work is common in countries such as Bangladesh or Pakistan. It has been estimated that globally, at least 10 million children work in domestic labor jobs.
Domestic work and international migration
Many countries import domestic workers from abroad, usually poorer countries, through recruitment agencies and brokers because their own nationals are no longer obliged or inclined to do domestic work.
This includes most Middle Eastern countries, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. For most of these countries, the number of domestic workers run into the hundreds of thousands.
There are at least one million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia under the kafala system. The ‘kafala system’ (sponsorship system) is a system used to monitor the construction and domestic migrant laborers in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.
The system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.
This practice has been criticised by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions
Taiwan also imports domestic workers from Vietnam and Mongolia. Organizations such as Kalayaan support the growing number of these migrant domestic workers.
ILO reports, Domestic Workers Worldwide
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