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Domestic workers' rights treaty becomes reality

Date: 05 September 2013

Domestic workers rejoice after the results of a vote on the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference, in Geneva, on 16 June 2011. Photo credit: International Labour Organization
Domestic workers rejoice after the results of a vote on the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference, in Geneva, on 16 June 2011. Photo credit: International Labour Organization

As the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189 enters into force on 5 September 2013, hopes are high for the impact it will have on securing the rights and protection of domestic workers worldwide. According to ILO estimates, there are 53-100 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 per cent of whom are women.[1] They represent 4 to 10 per cent of the labour force in developing countries and about 2 per cent in developed countries.[2] Their work is an important contribution to economic and social development. Still, 40 per cent of countries worldwide have no form of regulation of any kind for domestic workers.[3]

Around the world, UN Women is working with Governments, unions and the private sector to promote the rights of domestic workers and ensure that their profession is both regulated and covered by social protection. This includes supporting the Global Forum on Migration and Development and promoting the ratification of ILO Convention 189 on domestic work – the landmark international treaty adopted on 16 June 2011, which comes into force and has already been ratified by eight countries.

A snapshot of our work around the globe…

Asia-Pacific | Latin America – Caribbean | Europe – Central Asia | Africa – Arab States

Asia-Pacific

“Due to conflict, I was displaced, jobless and forced to go to Israel to work to feed and educate my children,” says 40-year-old Kalpana Giri, a caregiver from Kathmandu in the remote district of Bajura, western Nepal. “I faced violence, verbal abuse, my mobility was restricted by the recruiting agency, and there was less payment of salary, so I returned within five months.”

Kalpana returned to Nepal, where she found POURAKHI, a network for returned women migrant workers, the majority of whom are domestic workers, which was created and is supported by UN Women. Kalpana became a community mobilizer in one of their pilot reintegration programmes.

Kalpana Giri speaks with women migrant workers during a field visit to Satungal, Nepal.
Kalpana Giri speaks with women migrant workers during a field visit to Satungal, Nepal. Photo: UN Women.

She helped train 77 migrant workers returnees like herself to become small-scale entrepreneurs in vegetable farming, poultry raising, tailoring and trading in tea, among others. She became a leader and successfully mobilized the local development budget in the village of Satungal to support a safe migration awareness programme and entrepreneurship training for returnee women migrant workers.

“After facing so many problems, after facing violence, I became a local leader,” says Kalpana. “Today I feel very empowered. I am a role model for my village.”

UN Women’s advocacy and engagement has a long history in Nepal and it has yielded concrete results, such as the Pourakhi network which supports migrant women workers, legislation that has cemented rights, and regulations that provide protection for the country’s 2.7 million migrant workers.

In Nepal, UN Women’s support and advocacy for the migrant women workers has been longstanding, with technical support during the drafting of Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act, as well as financial support for the intensive 72 rounds of consultations held with diverse stakeholders from 2005 to 2007. The Act was adopted by the Government in 2007 and Regulation was developed in 2008. The legislation establishes the right to non-discrimination, ensures equal opportunities for women and men working abroad, and socioeconomic protection for migrant workers and their families.

Such measures now even extend beyond Nepal’s borders, with shelters for returned migrants established, both in Nepal and all major destinations for Nepali women workers. Nepali Embassies in Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide safe houses for distressed women and support for their rescue and repatriation.

In related efforts, six labour attachés are also currently working in Nepali Embassies in Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Malaysia. The Nepalese Government is also regulating the recruitment and placement of domestic workers in four countries to ensure that foreign employment agencies are certified and approved by Nepali diplomatic missions there. Nepal’s Foreign Employment Promotion Board even reimburses women migrant workers for their pre-departure orientation expenses.

UN Women also supported preparation of the Foreign Employment Policy, adopted in 2012, which includes a separate section focusing on the rights of women domestic workers.

Nepali returned women migrant workers join a national rally organized by the Nepali Government and the National Network for Safe Migration on International Migrants Day, 18 December, 2012. Photo credit: UN Women
Nepali returned women migrant workers join a national rally organized by the Nepali Government and the National Network for Safe Migration on International Migrants Day, 18 December, 2012. Photo: UN Women

The organization has helped the Board develop a domestic work manual, standard operating procedures for its skills training centers, and a handbook on safe migration to help local government officials design their own programmes and assist migrant families. The Entity was supported the establishment of a mechanism to provide access to justice for cheated migrant workers, including for those who are undocumented, and trained returned women migrant workers as paralegals. These paralegals have helped recover unpaid wages for women migrant workers, tracked women who have lost contact with families and handled cases of physical abuse.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, domestic workers are working to achieve their rights. UN Women has been active at a regional level in the Asia-Pacific region as well, organizing forums and conferences to review current international human rights tools and labour standards, as well as share best practices and lessons learned. Among other events, UN Women jointly organized a “Regional Conference on Human Rights Instruments, International Labour Standards and Women Migrant Workers’ Rights,” with the ILO and three ministries of the Cambodian Government from 4-5 September 2012, in Phnom Penh.

In Indonesia, UN Women supported the formation of women migrant worker’s networks across six districts and strengthened the capacity of existing organizations to influence migration policy and claim entitlements. This includes technical and financial support to advocate with local governments for legislation, such as that adopted in the city of Blitar, East Java, in 2008. UN Women has also raised awareness at the community level and worked with partners to ensure gender-sensitive provisions in the national law governing migration and the protection of domestic workers’ rights.

In the Philippines, UN Women galvanized advocacy for the Batas Kasambahay Bill, which was signed into a path-breaking national law on 18 January 2013. It provides labour and social protection such as: a written contract in a language understood by both employee and employer, regularly paid minimum wages and registration of employment, maximum daily working hours with provisions for overtime pay, workers’ coverage under the social security system, including health insurance, and protection against abuse and violence.

Latin America and the Caribbean

In the Southern Cone, UN Women worked closely with the ILO, the Uruguayan Government and domestic workers in the lead-up to the adoption of ILO Convention 189 two years ago. The organization also supports a regional plan for the Convention’s ratification, uniting domestic workers unions in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay around a common action plan.

In Brazil, UN Women has strengthened the political organization of domestic workers, providing support for their advocacy in national and international fora and public information campaigns around the regulation of domestic work. 

Congresswoman Benedita da Silva (left), author of the Constitutional amendment that expands rights for domestic workers, comforts Creuza Maria de Oliveira (right), President of the National Federation of Domestic Workers in Brazil, as the reform was enacted by Congress on 2 April 2013. Photo credit: Agência Brasil/José Cruz
Congresswoman Benedita da Silva (left), author of the Constitutional amendment that expands rights for domestic workers, comforts Creuza Maria de Oliveira (right), President of the National Federation of Domestic Workers in Brazil, as the reform was enacted by Congress on 2 April 2013. Photo credit: Agência Brasil/José Cruz 

On 2 April 2013, Brazil enacted a Constitutional amendment, heralded as a domestic workers bill of rights, which guarantees a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and paid overtime, among other rights. On that occasion, UN Women launched a study on the impact of such expanding social protection, which provides an in-depth economic justification for ratification of ILO Convention 189. The research was supported under the Inter-agency Programme for the Promotion of Gender Equality, Race, and Ethnicity, developed in partnership between UN Women, UNDP and the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth.

In Bolivia, pro-domestic work policies have also taken shape. “We have lived a historical discrimination where we have not even been considered women, but rather [as] objects at work… Thanks to the fight of the domestic workers’ movement, we have talked about how hard this work is… we have even brought recognition to housewives and the importance of their work,” says Casimira Rodriguez, an indigenous woman domestic worker and founder of the National Federation of Household Workers of Bolivia, which campaigned for the Household Worker Act which became law in 2003.

Casimira became Bolivia’s Minister of Justice in 2006, the first-ever indigenous women to hold the post. She was instrumental in developing a law extending healthcare coverage to domestic workers, which was passed in 2008. As Justice Minister, she also formalized Bolivia’s National Day of the Domestic Worker (30 March) as a public holiday. It is now commemorated as Domestic Workers’ Day across Latin America and the Caribbean.

UN Women’s multi-country office for the Caribbean, in collaboration with the ILO, has worked to strengthen domestic workers unions. It supported the Steering Committee of the Caribbean Domestic Workers Network, which has since created a formal regional network of domestic workers unions and collaborating organizations from five countries in the English-speaking Caribbean (Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago).[4]

In Jamaica, UN Women has supported the Jamaica Household Workers Association to become a union and to better advocate for decent work legislation and recognition of domestic workers rights. Union President Shirley Pryce credits UN Women’s institutional support for raising the organization’s profile.

“Because of our visibility and level of awareness-raising on rights and protection, we have had an extremely large number of employers and employees calling the organization for information and to lodge complaints,” says Shirley, adding that her union is now in a much stronger position to represent the island’s more than 58,000 domestic workers in cases brought before the Industrial Tribunal Court. “As a matter of fact, the Minister of Labour has been referring complaints that come to them, to us.”

Women sign a petition urging the Government of Trinidad & Tobago to ratify ILO Convention 189 at the headquarters of the National Union of Domestic Employees in 2011. Photo credit: UN Women/Sharon Carter-Burke
Women sign a petition urging the Government of Trinidad & Tobago to ratify ILO Convention 189 at the headquarters of the National Union of Domestic Employees in 2011. Photo credit: UN Women/Sharon Carter-Burke 

As a result of a UN Women-funded project to mobilize domestic workers and strengthen union capacity in Trinidad and Tobago, the National Union of Domestic Employees has enhanced its participation in policy discussions and national decision-making. The union was appointed for a second term on the country’s Minimum Wages Board, representing it on the National Domestic Workers Committee.

That committee has created a national register for domestic workers, launched in March 2012, and allows for inspectors to carry out proactive inspections in the work environments of domestic workers to ensure compliance with the existing legislation. The union has also made recommendations for new domestic work legislation now before Cabinet.

Europe and Central Asia

With the support of UN Women’s sub-regional office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, women experts and NGOs organized a series of roundtable consultations in Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan in 2012 to raise awareness and improve understanding of the rights of domestic workers and decent work in line with ILO Convention 189. They are now lobbying jointly for the adoption of the ILO Convention and integration of its standards into relevant national policies and legislation.

The consultations also signaled the need to review existing policies and legislation around domestic work and a qualitative study of domestic workers’ needs and priorities. That study is now underway by UN Women, in partnership with the Center for Migration Studies in Russia and Kazakhstan, to assess the status and needs of domestic workers from Central Asian States and provide evidence -based arguments for the further implementation of international standards protecting their rights.

In Azerbaijan, local UN Women partners are running an awareness-raising campaign among parliamentarians and trade unions on the ILO Convention and the rights of domestic workers. In Kazakhstan, UN Women and the Federation of Trade Unions are jointly preparing resource material to advocate for the rights of domestic workers, including a brief explanatory guide for employers outlining international norms along with a standard recommended labour contract.

Ms. Gulshara Abdikalykova is Head of the National Commission for Women Affairs and Family and Demographic Policy of Kazakhstan.
Ms. Gulshara Abdikalykova is Head of the National Commission for Women Affairs and Family and Demographic Policy of Kazakhstan. 

“Kazakhstan requires a detailed analysis of the country’s legislation for compliance with the international standards of the ILO Convention 189 and the implementation of its principles into national legislation,” says Ms. Gulshara Abdikalykova, Head of the National Commission for Women Affairs and Family and Demographic Policy and Adviser to the President of Kazakhstan.

“In my opinion, the ILO Convention on domestic workers should become an important tool making it possible to reduce risks in the sphere of employment of domestic workers and help millions of people to find a decent job,”she added.

At a regional level, UN Women is also engaging policymakers with the Eurasian Economic Community (whose members include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Belarus, as well as observers Armenia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Moldova), urging them to integrate international standards on domestic workers’ rights in their legislation.

Africa and Arab States

Cameroon thumb

UN Women is also actively working in Africa, through initiatives supported by its Fund for Gender Equality. In Cameroon, the National Association Supporting Domestic Workers organizes training sessions on labour legislation, the drafting of work contracts, as well as professional ethics. With this training, domestic workers have been able to affirm their social status and better defend their rights.

In September 2013, UN Women and the ILO initiated a programme to support and protect Ethiopian women migrant domestic workers migrating to countries that are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait) as well as to Lebanon,Sudan and South Sudan. The programme will support the Government of Ethiopia to ensure the rights of low-skilled rural women domestic workers, inform them prior to migration and establish safe havens for returnees. As part of the programme, UN Women will run an awareness-raising campaign to provide information on the rights of women migrant domestic workers.

A 2013 Briefing Kit published by UN Women and the International Trade Union Confederation also details legislative progress in South Africa, such as the implementation of a minimum wage, fair working conditions, unemployment insurance and skills development for domestic workers, as well as human and financial resources to monitor the treatment of domestic workers.

Mona Saad thumb

In the Arab States, UN Women manages several initiatives in addition to those coordinated between the Government of Nepal and several Gulf States. The Fund for Gender Equality runs a programme to improve public policies to protect female domestic workers’ rights in Egypt, which has helped create an NGO called “Helpers” with plans to form a national union. The programme’s advocacy efforts have gathered momentum at the national level to change the labour law and provide social protection to workers in the informal sector, with Immigration Ministry officials analysing adjustments to the labour law and licensing for domestic workers, as a means to obtain social and health insurance.

In Jordan, UN Women strongly supported changes to the Labour Code and a new Regulation in 2009 to include domestic workers, cooks, gardeners and similar workers – becoming the first Arab country to provide labour protections to domestic workers. The Government introduced a standard unified working contract for migrant domestic workers, with important rights provisions, the development of which was also supported by UN Women.

At a global level, UN Women has supported the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), which has resulted in a checklist based on human rights standards intended as a tool for Governments to develop gender-sensitive legal and social protections for domestic workers. The checklist was devised at the 2011 Global Forum and launched at the 2012 GFMD in Mauritius. These global meetings also encourage Governments to ratify and implement ILO Convention 189.

RELATED LINKS:

Domestic workers from the Southern Cone push for rights with ILO Convention on their side

Domestic Workers Count Too: Ensuring protection, upholding rights

Briefing kit: Domestic Workers Count Too: Implementing Protections for Domestic Workers

Supporting women workers towards a safer migration journey in Nepal

Domestic workers gain equal rights in Brazil

Exploited domestic workers in Cameroon organize themselves to defend their rights

Mona Saad: An Egyptian domestic worker’s journey to leadership

#AskUNWomen Twitter chat on the protection of domestic workers

Domestic workers rap at a regional preparatory meeting leading up to the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development 2013

Global Forum on Migration and Development focuses on the protection of migrant domestic workers


[1] ILO (2011) Global and Regional Estimates on Domestic Workers (Policy Brief No. 4) p. 6. Available at: http://www.ilo.org/travail/whatwedo/publications/lang–en/docName–WCMS_155951/index.htm

[2] ILO data cited in Domestic Workers Count Too: Implementing Protections for Domestic Workers (p. 4).

[3] While 40 per cent of 73 countries studied worldwide have no form of regulation of any kind for domestic work, labour laws covering domestic workers have been introduced and implemented in several countries over the years, such as: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, France, Hong Kong, SAR, Jordan, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay, some U.S. states and others. ibid (p. 5)

[4] Caribbean Domestic Workers Network as a regional umbrella body comprises the Antigua and Barbuda Trades and Labour Union (ATLU); Barbados Workers’ Union; Red Thread, Guyana; the Jamaica Household Workers Union (JHWU); CAFRA-Saint Lucia; NUDE – the National Union of Domestic Employees – Trinidad and Tobago; and the Transport Industrial Workers’ Union (TIWU), Trinidad and Tobago.