Domestic Workers

Introduction

According to the International Labour Office (ILO) there are “tens of millions” of domestic workers worldwide. Domestic work is mostly, but not exclusively, performed by women, the vast majority from the poorer sections of society (ILO 2007).

This important occupation involves a significant proportion of the workforce worldwide (Tokman 2010). Domestic workers provide essential services that enable others to work outside the home, thus facilitating the functioning of labour market and the economy.

Domestic workers work in the homes of others for pay, providing a range of domestic services: they sweep and clean, wash clothes and dishes; shop and cook; care for children, the elderly, and the disabled; or provide gardening, driving, and security services. Some live on the premises of their employer. Many work on a part time basis, often for multiple employers.

Within domestic work, women are concentrated in cleaning and care services, while men tend to have the better paying jobs as gardeners, drivers, or security guards.

For more information, see Typology of Domestic Workers.

To see the latest news from around the globe on domestic workers, visit WIEGO's news section about domestic workers.

Size & Significance

Domestic workers

Domestic work is a large and growing sector of employment, especially for women. According to the latest ILO estimates, domestic workers represent 4 to 10 per cent of the total workforce in developing countries and 1 to 2.5 per cent of the total workforce in developed countries (ILO 2010). These statistics translate into the “tens of millions” of domestic workers around the world (ILO 2007). In Latin America, there are an estimated 7.6 million domestic workers, who represent 5.5 per cent of the urban workforce (Tokman 2010).

Women are over-represented among domestic workers. Three quarters or more worldwide are female: ranging from 74 per cent in Belize to 94 per cent in Israel (ILO 2010). In addition, a far higher percentage of the female workforce than of the male workforce is engaged in domestic work. In Latin America, 12 per cent of the female urban workforce, compared to 0.5 per cent of the male urban workforce, is engaged in domestic work (Tokman 2010).

The ILO Bureau of Statistics Database shows domestic work is an important source of employment for women, but not for men. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 10-18 per cent of women employed are in domestic work. In the Arab countries, specifically in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, over 40 per cent of women employed are in domestic work. Domestic work is also a major employer of women in Asia and Africa: 11 per cent in Botswana; 11 per cent in the Philippines; 12 per cent in Namibia; and 16 per cent in South Africa. However, in very few countries are more than 1 per cent of men employed in domestic service.

Measurement Challenges1

There are three basic challenges to measuring domestic workers:

  • the definition challenge: what types of activities should be included?
  • a classification and coding challenge: which statistical classification system should be used and how many codes are needed to cover all types of domestic work?
  • a tabulation challenge: how to tabulate data with different codes at different levels of classification?
    For a detailed technical discussion, see Measurement Challenges for Domestic Workers.

Migrant Workers

Among international migrants, the proportion who are women has increased significantly in recent decades. Women (and girls) now make up approximately half of the estimated 200 million migrants worldwide. Domestic workers are an important part of this trend (Human Rights Watch 2006). Asia is a large source of international migrants working as domestics both within Asia and beyond. As of the mid-2000s, around 6.3 million Asian migrants were legally working and residing in the more developed countries of Asia. Most come from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka where women, mostly domestic workers, make up 60-80 per cent of registered migrants. Perhaps another 1.2 million undocumented migrants are in the region, many working as domestic workers (United Nations Population Fund 2006).

Arab countries employ millions of migrant domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia there are approximately 1.5 million domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka (Human Rights Watch 2008).

In Latin America, domestic workers account for up to 60 per cent of internal and cross-border migrants. Young women migrate from less economically developed countries -- e.g. Bolivia and Peru -- to work in more developed countries. The vast majority of immigrant domestic workers are women -- 70-74 per cent in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Honduras; 89-96 per cent in Argentina Chile, Brazil and Paraguay. For women immigrants, employment in domestic work ranges from 10 per cent (Dominican Republic) to 19 per cent (Paraguay) to 37 per cent (Chile) to 47 per cent (Costa Rica) to 78 per cent (Argentina).

Women migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America make up most of the domestic workforce in the USA (United Nations Population Fund 2006), accounting for 58 per cent of workers in personal and related services in 2000. Also, in France more than 50 per cent of migrant women are employed in domestic work.

Child Labour

Throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of girls work in domestic service, especially in the developing world. They are particularly hidden and among the most difficult to survey. The ILO International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) notes that available statistics show only the “tip of the iceberg” and provide “an alarming indication of the extent of the phenomena worldwide.” It reports that around 175,000 children under 18 are employed in domestic service in Central America and more than 688,000 in Indonesia. Most child labourers are between 12-17 years of age; some are as young as 5.

In South Africa nearly 54,000 children under 15 work as domestics and in Guatemala around 38,000 children between 5 -7 years old. It is estimated that more girls under 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labour (ILO-IPEC 2007).

Driving Forces & Working Conditions

Domestic workers

Why Women Work as Domestic Workers

A combination of push and pull factors contribute to women entering domestic work. Rural poverty has increased in many countries occasioned by structural adjustment programmes, devastation of the agricultural sector and economic crises. This has pushed many women and girls into the domestic labour market (Human Rights Watch 2006).

Domestic work is one of the few employment opportunities open to poor women. Cleaning and cooking, looking after children and the elderly is almost universally regarded as women’s work, so men rarely compete with women in this job market.

With few formal jobs available and facing gender discrimination, often coupled with discrimination based on caste or class, race or ethnicity, options for decent work are few. As most are from poor households, they generally have little education and few marketable skills, other than in keeping house and caring for others. However, some domestic workers who have migrated to from countries such as the Philippines or from eastern Europe have medium or even high levels of education (Ramirez-Machado 2003).

There is an ongoing demand for domestic services due to a range of demographic, social and employment trends. In Western Europe, a growing proportion of women work outside the home, while public provision of household and care services is in decline. Extended family support is often no longer available, increasing the need for help with housework, child care and care of the elderly (European Trades Union Confederation 2005). Affordable domestic workers free up women to go to work, and fills the gaps in care facilities. Demand is also strong in North America, wealthier Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea, and in many Arab States (United Nations Population Fund 2006).

Earnings/Wages

Data on wages in domestic work are available in the ILO Bureau of Statistics Database for a few countries. They show that women employed in domestic work receive much lower wages than women working in other jobs and that the wage levels are lower for women domestic workers than for men domestic workers. A compilation of official data from 19 Latin American countries indicates that the earnings of domestic workers are among the lowest of all occupations and the earnings of women are lower than men’s – in part because women and men tend to do different tasks. A significant proportion of domestic workers live below the poverty line.

  • In Costa Rica women domestic workers earn an
    average of 40 per cent of the wages paid to other women workers, while
    the comparable ratio for men is 67 per cent.
  • Domestic workers earn 41 per cent of the earnings of the urban workforce.2
  • Across Latin America, women’s earnings in domestic work are 73 per cent of men’s.
  • Women’s  domestic work earnings are less than other jobs in the informal sector: only 76 per cent of the earnings of all women in the informal sector, 84 per cent of female own account workers, 83 per cent of female wage workers in informal enterprises.
  • Men’s earnings in domestic work are often more than in other jobs in the informal sector: only 56 per cent of earnings of all male workers in the informal sector, 94 per cent of male wage workers in informal enterprises but 118 per cent of male own account workers.
  • Thirty-six per cent of domestic workers are from households below the poverty line, compared to 26 per cent of the total urban workforce and 35 per cent of wage workers in informal enterprises.

In sum, in the 19 Latin American countries where urban labour force data were available and analyzed, the earnings of domestic workers are among the lowest of all occupations with a significant proportion of domestic workers earning below the per capita poverty line. The proportion of domestic workers with labour contracts and/or social protections is very low compared to other occupations. And women are in a worse position than men, in part because they perform different tasks or functions than men. It is likely these patterns would be observed in other regions of the world if data were available.

Working Conditions

Most domestic work, especially by women, is informal – that is, it is performed outside the realm of labour regulations and social protections. As a result, domestic workers suffer significant “decent work deficits” as defined by the ILO, which coined the term, including deficits in employment opportunities, legal rights, social protections, as well as organization and representation. In sum, to cite the title of a May 2010 conference in South Africa, domestic workers are “exploited, undervalued – and essential.”3

There are several common features of domestic work that set it apart from other types of paid work. First and foremost, domestic workers are employed in the homes of others by an individual or a family (not a firm or enterprise). Second, since they are hired to work in people’s homes and to perform a range of caretaking functions, domestic workers tend to have a personal and intimate knowledge of their employers, but the relationship is highly unequal, leaving many domestic workers vulnerable to verbal, physical, or sexual abuse by their employers. Often differences in race, class, and citizenship between the employer and the domestic worker exacerbate this inequality and vulnerability. Third, most of the tasks involved in domestic work are seen as “women’s” work and, therefore, as being of low status and value – with the exception of tasks such as gardening, driving, or guarding, which are typically performed by men. Cooking for others in their homes is often valued and compensated more highly than other domestic tasks. This may be due to the fact that, in some societies and countries, men are as – or more – likely than women to be hired to cook for others in their homes. Fourth, domestic workers tend to be invisible as workers and isolated from others in this sector because the physical workspace is also the private household.

Domestic workers tend to have lower wages, fewer benefits, and less legal or social protections compared to most other wage workers, with the probable exception of casual day labourers and industrial outworkers. Further, although the home is widely viewed as a “safe haven” and some domestic workers feel protected in the private sphere of a private home, there is growing evidence that domestic workers are exposed to a wide range of unhealthy and hazardous working conditions (as further detailed by Peggie Smith's article in Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011). Also, very few domestic workers have labour contracts or social protection, and women in domestic work are in a worse position than men.

Certain categories of domestic workers face specific working conditions that exacerbate or reinforce the common challenges and disadvantages faced by all domestic workers. Live-in domestic workers confront greater isolation and more limited mobility; longer working hours and a larger share of payments in kind; greater vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse by their employers; and poorer living conditions including lack of privacy. Migrant domestic workers often live in the homes of their employers, facing not only the challenges of live-in domestics but also abuses within the recruitment system and from police and immigration authorities, including advance commission fees, withheld wages and passports, and verbal, physical, or sexual harassment. It is important to note that regulating migrant domestic work requires laws and regulations in both sending and receiving countries and at the international level. Trafficked domestic workers face the same challenges as migrant domestic workers compounded by the “extra-legal” operations of their recruiters and the “near-bondage” conditions that they live in with their employers. Finally, child domestic workers within all of these categories need special attention.

Domestic workers are isolated and vulnerable, especially those that live in their employer’s home. They are dependent on the good or bad will of their employer. As women, they are subjected to gender discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping in relation to their work, which is regarded as low status and accorded little value. They risk physical and psychological abuse and sexual exploitation, with migrant domestic workers and children being especially vulnerable.4

They work long hours for meagre pay, and usually have no maternity leave, health care or pension provision. Living conditions of those who stay on the premises of their employers are frequently sub-standard. In many countries they are excluded from the provision of labour law and social security protection, or inferior standards apply. An ILO report examining legislation for domestic workers in over 60 countries notes that, “Regardless of the manner in which domestic work is regulated by national laws, standards on domestic work fall below labour standards set for other categories of workers” (Ramirez-Machado 2003: 64).

Even where protective laws are on the statute books, they are frequently ignored by employers and not enforced by authorities. Domestic workers who do not live on their employer’s premises face many of the same problems. This means that a majority of domestic workers work informally, whatever their formal legal status, and make up a sizeable portion of the informal women workforce.

Policies & Programmes

Domestic workers

Regulatory Challenges

Sixty years ago, in 1948, the International Labour Conference (ILC) recognized the need for a special international instrument for domestic workers. For decades, however, no such instrument – convention or recommendation – was introduced. Meanwhile, the ILO took the position that domestic workers are supposed to be covered in the scope of the Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights and the scope of all existing international ILO instruments unless a specific convention or recommendation expressly excludes domestic workers (ILO 2010). There are flexibility or exclusion clauses in some ILO instruments that have been, or can be, used to exclude domestic workers (ILO 2010).

In many countries, domestic workers are de jure covered – or at least partly covered – under labour laws and social protection policies/schemes. For instance, of the 40 ILO member states that responded to a 2009 ILO survey, the following percentages of countries by region reported that domestic workers were covered by minimum wage legislation: 18 per cent of the countries in Asia; 70 per cent in Africa;5  70 per cent in Latin America; and 50 per cent of the developed countries (ILO 2009). In those countries that have universal health insurance, public health systems, or universal old-age pension schemes, domestic workers are de jure covered. However, domestic workers are seldom covered by occupational heath and safety schemes or unemployment insurance.

Even in countries where domestic workers are covered de jure by minimum wage legislation or social protection schemes, they are often not covered de facto – or in practice – due to problems of implementation and enforcement.

Often, domestic workers and their employers do not pay income or payroll taxes or make contributions to social security, and their employers do not comply with labour laws regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions. There is a widespread perception that labour standards cannot be enforced in the private setting of the home. For this reason, domestic workers remain uncertain whether their employer and their working conditions will be monitored for compliance with labour laws, even if they pay income tax and make contributions to social security. In other words, so long as the home is seen as “off limits” to labour regulation and inspection, domestic workers question whether, if they comply with the law, their employer will comply – or be forced to comply – with labour standards.

Many domestic workers are not sure what benefits and protections they should get in return for taxes paid and contributions made. An additional point is that, while some domestic workers are interested in having a proof of employment as a pre-condition for applying for work permits or citizenship, other migrant domestic workers avoid regulation and taxation because they want to remain “invisible” if they are undocumented, or are recent or temporary migrants who do not know which benefits or protections they are entitled to.

The result of these regulator challenges and failures is that few domestic workers have labour contracts or social protection and women in domestic work are in a worse position than men. The compilation of official data from 19 Latin American countries, cited earlier, found that (Tokman 2010):

  • 20 per cent of domestic workers, compared to 58 per cent of the total urban workforce, have a labour contract
  • 19 per cent of domestic workers, compared to 47 per cent of the total urban workforce and 25 per cent of wage workers in informal enterprises, contribute to pension schemes
  • fewer female domestic workers (18%) contribute to pension schemes than male domestic workers (31%)
  • 43 per cent of domestic workers with permanent contracts, compared to 86 per cent of all urban workers with permanent contracts, contribute to pension schemes
  • 38 per cent of female domestic workers with permanent contracts, compared to 54 per cent of male domestic workers with permanent contracts, contribute to a pension scheme
  • 44 per cent of domestic workers, compared to 47 per cent of male domestic workers and 64 per cent of the total urban workforce, contribute to pension and/or health schemes

It should be noted that, since health coverage is nearly universal in some countries, social protection coverage is higher and sex differences are lower when both health benefits and pensions are considered.

In part this is due to a “mismatch” between domestic work and the laws, regulations, and institutions that govern labour markets. First and foremost, as noted earlier, many observers question whether private households should come under the jurisdiction of existing labour laws and regulations. The home is widely seen as a private realm and a “safe haven” that should not – indeed, need not – be regulated. However, there is growing evidence that the home is neither a fair nor a safe working environment for domestic workers. Should labour laws and regulations be enforced in the private setting of homes? If so, how? Specifically, should labour inspectors be allowed to inspect working conditions in private homes? Some legal scholars argue that households that allow outsiders – indeed, strangers – to work in their homes should not be immune from regulation (Smith 2011). Some countries, including Ireland and Uruguay, have passed legislation mandating the inspection of private households (ILO 2010).

Second, key features of domestic work make it difficult to negotiate collective bargaining agreements between domestic workers and their employers. In the case of domestic workers who work for private clients or mutiple households, neither the employers nor the workers consider themselves as “employers” or “workers.” Their relationship remains highly personalized, although unequal, and informal. The employment relationship often lacks a written contract or even a fully negotiated verbal understanding. The domestic workers and, more so, their employers are not likely to be organized. In the case of the domestic workers, this is because they often remain invisible and isolated from other workers. In the case of domestic workers hired by a “third party,” the domestic workers is employed by the agency and the private household is the client of the agency. Negotiations about the working conditions for the domestic workers is, according to law and regulations, with the agency. But sometimes the agency sees its role as only negotiating the placement of the domestic worker, not overseeing her working conditions.

Third, existing labour laws and regulations are inappropriate or inadequate for several types of domestic workers. Consider the domestic worker who works part-time for several employers. Most existing labour laws and regulations are premised on exactly the reverse situation – namely, one employer with many employees. Should they also apply to an employee who has several employers? Should she be considered a part-time worker if she works part-time for any given employer but works full-time or nearly full-time for all of her employers combined?

Consider migrant domestic workers whose citizenship status erodes the possibility of negotiating or enforcing labour standards. Consider the domestic workers who are “tied” to their employers: notably, migrant workers whose visa status is linked to that of their employers who are also migrants (for example, diplomats) but also trafficked migrants whose passport is withheld by their recruiters. Consider the migrant domestic worker who, under the laws of her host country, has to return to her home country shortly after her current job ends: making it difficult for her to find a new job in the host country or to negotiate taking her accrued benefits back to her home country.6

Regulating domestic workers in such special cases may require inventing different frameworks for thinking about and providing protection. It may also involve a broader spectrum of laws than simply labour laws or regulations. In the case of third-party contracting, it is necessary to regulate the recruiting or placement agencies themselves – not just the employment relationship. In the case of migrant domestic workers, it becomes necessary to bring in immigration law and to consider setting up safe houses, emergency services, and mechanisms to transfer benefits as well as remittances. In the case of trafficked domestic workers, it may be necessary to bring in criminal law. In the case of domestic workers hired by diplomats, it may be necessary to address the “immunity” from local laws enjoyed by diplomats.

Finally, it is difficult to address through laws and regulations some of the underlying structural issues that contribute to the high and growing demand for domestic services, including increased female labour force participation; demographic shifts and associated increases in the numbers of young and elderly; wage or income inequalities between and within countries; and the sexual division of labour that persists in most societies. In addition to legal and regulatory reforms, there is a need to raise the status and perceived value of care work; and to advocate for public provision or subsidy as well as regulation of care services for children, the elderly, the disabled, and the sick. Most importantly, it is important to recognize domestic workers as legitimate workers.

Addressing the Challenges

Domestic work has begun to receive the attention it deserves. Several countries have introduced new laws, policies, or schemes to protect domestic workers and regulate the sector.

In a number of countries, these recent policies, laws, or schemes have been designed to recognize and protect domestic workers. They include:

  • a subsidized state “service ticket” scheme with collective bargaining in France, Belgium, and part of Switzerland
  • a right to organize, coverage under the Employment Ordinance, and contracts with minimum standards required by the Immigration Department in Hong Kong
  • a Collective Agreement on the Employment Conditions of Household Employees in Mali
  • a Magna Carta for Household Helpers in the Philippines
  • a Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 1997, with a Sectoral Determination specific to Domestic Workers and a binding mandate to protect domestic workers in South Africa (Bonner 2010)
  • a Domestic Servant Service Policy in Ghana, introduced in 2012, to monitor contracts and working conditions (read more here)

Also, a recent bill in New York State gives the State Labor Department and the attorney general the power to enforce legislation on fairness regarding pay, work hours, and benefits for domestic workers.

Decent Work for Domestic Workers: The ILO Convention

Until recently, domestic workers' rights as workers in international and national law have received little attention. However, more countries have been putting in place laws to protect domestic workers, or signalling their intention to do so. As well, for many years trade unions would occasionally voice the need for a special ILO instrument (convention), but employers and governments did not see the need for an international labour standard for domestic workers, and for decades it was not strongly pursued.

That all began to change in 2007, when the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Workers' Group of the ILO reiterated the call with strong support from domestic worker organizations, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers (IUF), WIEGO, and a range of allies. At its meeting in March 2008, the Governing Body of the ILO with some supportive governments amongst its members, decided to put the item “Decent Work for Domestic Workers” as a standard-setting item on the agenda of the ILC 2010 and 2011.

This led to a coordinated global effort that resulted in the adoption of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers and accompanying Recommendation at the 100th International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva in June 2011. For more information about the journey to this historic moment, and the ongoing efforts to secure rights for domestic workers worldwide, see The Campaign for a Domestic Workers’ Convention.

Organization & Voice

Domestic workers

Domestic workers have made great strides in organizing globally in recent years. In 2011, they were victorious in having governments, employers and workers adopt an the Convention (C189) and accompanying Recommendation on Decent Work for Domestic Workers at the International Labour Conference (ILC). Since then, several countries have ratified C189.

In 2013, the International Domestic Workers’ Network transformed itself into the first global union organization in the world run by women: the International Domestic Workers' Federation (IDWF). Read more.

But most domestic workers are not organized into trade unions and have no representative voice. In some countries they are not allowed to join trade unions (ILO 1994). Even where they have the legal right to organize, it is not easy because they are isolated and vulnerable. Where they do organize into unions these organizations struggle to grow and sustain themselves.

Generally, established unions and national centres have not prioritized organizing domestic workers because they are invisible and most are women in “low status” jobs. They are seemingly without collective power, difficult to organize using traditional approaches and a challenge for financial sustainability. Fortunately there are exceptions. One example is in Italy, where the Federazione Italiana Lavoratori Commercio Alberghi Mense e Servizi-Confederazione Generale Italiana (FILCAMSCGIL), a union in the commerce, tourism and services sector, has negotiated a national collective agreement for privately employed domestic workers. There has been such an agreement since 1974 (ETUC 2005).

Domestic Workers’ Organizations

Increasingly, domestic workers are organizing themselves. In some countries domestic workers have a long history of organizing into trade unions. However, their unions have always struggled to achieve scale, to have an impact, and, for many, to survive. The recent global movement toward ratification of C189 has provided impetus at the local level for organizing.

This is an important development as being organized is one dimension of formalization and, in turn, enables organized domestic workers to demand recognition as workers entitled to the rights and benefits that formal workers enjoy.

Some trade unions of domestic workers have only domestic workers among their members, while others include workers from different sectors. The Kenyan Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers’ Union (KUDHEIHA) began in the 1950s as a union of domestic workers but expanded to include workers from other sectors. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India was founded in 1972 as a trade union of informal women workers from multiple sectors and has recently began organizing domestic workers. There are also trade unions of only or mainly domestic workers, including the Hong Kong Domestic and General Workers’ Union and the South African Domestic, Service, and Allied Workers’ Union.

The newer forms of member-based organizations of domestic workers include cooperatives such as the UNITY Housecleaners Cooperative on Long Island, New York, in the USA, or associations that operate like unions but are not legally registered as unions. These have been called proto-unions or quasi-unions by some observers (Heckscher and Carré 2006). One such organization is the Association of Philippine Migrant Workers in Belgium (Bonner 2010).

Migrant workers often organize into groups on the basis of a common nationality or language. Others form groups and develop organizations through faith-based institutions. Some self-help groups or organizations decide that a trade union is needed and transform themselves. In Peru, the NGO, Instituto para la Promoción y Formación de Trabajos en el Hogar (IPROFOTH or Institute of Promotion and Formation of Workers of the Home) formed a trade union that was registered in 2006. The Indonesia Migrant Workers Union (IMWU) in Hong Kong started off as a self-help group of Indonesian migrant domestic workers and decided to become a trade union to gain recognition, and to have a more political agenda of promoting labour rights. Elsewhere domestic workers, against all odds, have chosen to directly form a new trade union, such as the South African Domestic, Service and Allied Workers’ Union (SADSAWU). And where forming independent trade unions is difficult, they find creative ways of organizing and fighting for their rights, such as through the Beijing Migrant Women Workers Club in China.

Many of these primary organizations belong to wider networks and alliances of domestic workers: local, national, regional, and international. For instance, UNITY Housecleaners has a broad agenda to improve working conditions of all domestic workers, not just its members, and is a member of Domestic Workers United, a New York-based coalition, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which was founded in 2007 and held its first congress at the 2008 US Social Forum.

Organizing Globally

Domestic workers organize locally, but are also uniting regionally and globally. The Asian Domestic Workers Network (ADWN), formed in 2005, consists of 12 local domestic worker organizations and support NGOs from six Asian countries; the Asia Migrant Domestic Workers’ Alliance was founded in 2008. In Latin America, there is a long-established regional organization, Confederación Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Trabajadoras del Hogar (CONLACTRAHO or the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Household Workers) founded in 1988 with member organizations in 13 countries and allies in Canada and Europe.

The 2008 decision by the ILO Governing Body to include a standard-setting discussion on domestic work on the agenda of the 2010 and 2011 ILCs provided impetus, strength, and purpose to these networks of domestic workers. The IDWN and other networks launched a campaign for an ILO Convention that included regional and international workshops to develop a common platform of demands, as well as plan advocacy and lobbying of governments, working with the trade unions and building alliances with a range of NGOs and supportive groups. (See The Campaign for a Domestic Workers' Convention.)

Yes We Did It! (written by Celia Mather and produced by WIEGO and IDWN) is the story of how domestic workers and allies achieved the C189, the Convention for Domestic Workers’ rights. Read it in English or Spanish

Domestic Workers’ Demands

Some of the common demands of domestic workers around the world are:

  • recognition of domestic work as real work, and not simply an extension of unpaid household and care work
  • recognition of domestic workers as workers
  • recognition and valuing of domestic work and the skills involved
  • worker rights in law – equal to other workers, including the right to organize and join trade unions and the right to representation
  • decent conditions of work, including limitations on working hours, rest periods, overtime pay, paid holidays, sick leave, maternity leave and a living wage
  • social security and protection: health care (including for those with HIV/AIDS) and pensions
  • access and right to training
  • freedom: of movement, to change employer, from harassment, from physical and psychological abuse and sexual exploitation
  • decent living conditions, including housing and facilities
  • favourable immigration laws
  • regulation of recruitment and placement agencies

Mobilizing around the campaign for a convention proved to be a powerful tool not only for forging alliances but also for organizing locally – all under the leadership of domestic workers themselves. Many of these leaders were chosen to be official delegates on the worker delegations from their respective countries to the ILC in both 2010 and 2011. The organizations and networks of domestic workers – and the leadership within them – gained strength and representative voice that helped secure C189 in 2011. This energy will carry domestic workers forward as they continue organizing to advocate for ratification of the Convention and its implementation in the laws of their own countries.

1This information is based on personal communications with Françoise Carré and Joann Vanek (2010).

2 The data were compiled by Victor Tokman from the statistical data base of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). In the ECLAC database, workers in the informal sector include owners and wage workers in informal enterprises, domestic workers, non-professional own account operators, and unpaid contributing family members. Informal enterprises are defined as enterprises with less than five workers. Own account workers are defined as self-employed workers who do not hire others and are not professionals.

 3 This was the title of a Social Law Project Conference held in Cape Town, South Africa, on 7-8 May 2010.

4 See for example, Human Rights Watch, 2006; Human Rights Watch, 2008; Amnesty International, 2007, Indonesia: Exploitation and Abuse: The Plight of Women Domestic Workers; Oxfam and Kalayaan, 2008, The New Bonded Labour?

5 The countries in Africa that responded to the ILO survey included South Africa and Tunisia.

6 This information is based on personal communication with Elizabth Tang and Ip Yo (2009).