Policy for domestic workers, ”a matter of urgency” says ILO


domestic workers 220px-Heinrich_Zille_WasserträgerinDomestic workers in India have more than doubled in number since 2005.

Talking to BBC World News, ILO’s, Tine Staermose stressed the importance of policies aimed at protecting a very vulnerable section of the society.

India’s domestic workers are considered to ”uphold the economy”, with a rising population of over 10 million.

Making decent work a reality for domestic workers worldwide:

ImpressionDomestic workers comprise a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers.

They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the scope of labour legislation. Currently there are at least ‘53 million domestic workers worldwide‘, not including child domestic workers, and this number is increasing steadily in developed and developing countries.

83% of domestic workers are Women.

Deplorable working conditions, labour exploitation, and abuses of human rights are major problems facing domestic workers. The ILO undertakes to protect the rights of domestic workers, promote equality of opportunity and treatment, and improve working and living conditions. Its global strategy consists of strengthening national capacities and institutions including policy and legislative reforms; promoting the ratification and implementation of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and Recommendation (No. 201); facilitating the organization of domestic workers and their employers; awareness-raising and advocacy; and development of knowledge base and policy tools.

Who are domestic workers

Under Convention No. 189, a domestic worker is “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship.” Domestic work is defined as “work performed in or for a household or households”.

Their work may include tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, or elderly or sick members of a family, gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, and even taking care of household pets.

A domestic worker may work on full-time or part-time basis; may be employed by a single household or by multiple employers; may be residing in the household of the employer (live-in worker) or may be living in his or her own residence (live-out). A domestic worker may be working in a country of which she/he is not a national, thus referred to as a migrant domestic worker.

DOMESTIC WORKERSEven though a substantial number of men work in the sector – often as gardeners, drivers or butlers – it remains a highly feminized sector: more than 80% of all domestic workers are women.

Globally, one in every 13 female wage workers is a domestic worker (or 7.5 per cent), and the ratio is as high as one in four in Latin America and the Caribbean, and almost one in three in the Middle East. Improving working conditions in this sector has broader ramifications for greater gender equality in society.

At present, domestic workers often face very low wages, excessively long hours, have no guaranteed weekly day of rest and at times are vulnerable to physical, mental and sexual abuse or restrictions on freedom of movement. Exploitation of domestic workers can partly be attributed to gaps in national labour and employment legislation, and often reflects discrimination along the lines of sex, race and caste.

The Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), a landmark treaty setting standards for the treatment of domestic workers, affirms that domestic workers are, like other workers, entitled to the respect and protection of their fundamental principles and rights at work, and to minimum protection.

The convention lays down a framework of minimum standards regarding:

  • Promotion and protection of human rights
  • Fundamental principles and rights at work
  • Terms and conditions of employment
  • Working time
  • Remuneration
  • Occupational safety and health
  • Social security
  • Groups with special risks: child domestic workers, live-in workers, migrant domestic workers
  • Private employment agencies
  • Dispute settlement, complaints and enforcement


Around the world, domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses with respect to their working conditions. They often work for excessively long hours, with little to no pay, and with almost no access to social protections. Globally, on average, 30% are excluded from labour legislation, but a much greater number do not enjoy ‘de facto’ minimum protection at work.

To promote improved and equal working conditions for domestic workers, the ILO carries out policy advisory services for national constituents, technical assistance projects at country-level, research and knowledge development, and policy advocacy campaigns. Critical areas addressed include policies and programs regarding working time of domestic workers that safeguards their health and safety, work-family balance and adequate rest; wage protection including minimum wage, and employment practices that shape terms and conditions of employment of domestic workers.

Wages, working time, work organization, maternity protection and arrangements to adapt working life to the demands of life outside work are core elements of the employment relationship and of workers’ protection. They are major dimensions of human resources management at the enterprise level, collective bargaining and social dialogue as well as socio-economic policies of governments. TRAVAIL develops comparative analysis and provides technical assistance to ILO constituents in these areas.

Eliminating abuses

action_domesticworkers_0Domestic workers are often exploited and can be subject to abuse and violence. The convention aims to eliminate such abuses and ensure decent working conditions and pay for domestic workers worldwide.

Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Equality Department, welcomed the vote in the Brazilian Senate, which was passed unanimously at the end of March after being approved in the lower house.

wcms_165839“With the passing of this law, so culminates Brazil’s process of recognizing the dignity and value of domestic work and domestic workers, who are to a large extent black women – a process which began in 1998 when, for the first time, the Constitution included a number of important labour guarantees for these workers.

Today’s Senate decision is one additional step towards narrowing the historical divide between the richest and “whiter” stratum of society and the poorest and “darker” lower end of the social ladder,” Tomei said.

It is particularly significant given the dramatic rise in the numbers of domestic workers in Brazil over the last few years – from 5.1 million to 6.6 million between 1995 and 2011. 17% of all jobs for women are in the domestic work sector. Latin America is one of the world’s fastest growing regions in the domestic work sector.


Facts and figures on domestic workers
Worldwide By region
  • 52.6 million worldwide
  • 83 per cent are women
  • 29.9 per cent are excluded from national labour legislation
  • 45 per cent have no entitlement to weekly rest periods/paid annual leave
  • More than a third of women domestic workers have no maternity protection
  • Asia and the Pacific: 21.4 million
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 19.6 million
  • Africa: 5.2 million
  • Developed countries: 3.6 million
  • Middle East: 2.1 million

Global momentum

Argentina also passed a bill in March, which limits working hours and ensures paid annual and maternity leave for domestic workers. The Indian Parliament included domestic workers in legislation to eradicate sexual harassment at work, which was passed last February.

aids global 2012

Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore. Legislative reforms have also begun in Finland, Namibia, Chile and the United States, among others.

So far four countries have ratified ILO Convention 189 – Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius and Italy. Several others have initiated the process of ratification, including South Africa, Costa Rica and Germany.

The European Commission is also pressing EU countries to implement the ILO Convention and has called for safeguards to protect young domestic workers.

1-a-a-a-a-emp-trabalho-domest-nos-euaAccording to an ILO study from January 2013, entitled Domestic Workers Across the World, at least 52 million people around the world – mainly women – are employed as domestic workers.

At the time of the research, only ten per cent were covered by general labour legislation to the same extent as other workers. More than one quarter were completely excluded from national labour legislation.

ILO legal specialist on working conditions, Martin Oelz, said that the signs are encouraging: “The Convention and Recommendation on domestic workers have effectively started to play their role as catalysts for change. Giving social dialogue a central place, these global minimum standards now serve as a starting point for devising new polices in a growing number of countries.”

ILO Convention 189
Domestic workers who care for families and households must have the same basic labour rights as other workers. These rights include:

  • Reasonable working hours,
  • Weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours,
  • A limit on in-kind payment,
  • Clear information on terms and conditions of employment,
  • Respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.


Domestic Workers Across the World: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection
[This publication sheds light on the magnitude of domestic work, a sector often “invisible” behind the doors of private households and unprotected by national legislation.]


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