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Historic victory for domestic workers worldwide

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Two weeks ago, a little-noticed or reported event took place in Geneva, Switzerland, which has significant implications for a section of our workers who operate “under the radar” – our domestic workers. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) which groups workers’ organisations, employers’ federations and governments and is the internationally-accredited authority on labour matters, approved overwhelmingly a Convention and Recommendation concerning domestic workers.{{more}}

Before we even begin to examine some of the main provisions, it is in order to make some observations about this category of workers and the manner in which our societies have traditionally treated them. First and foremost, one cannot escape the gender factor – domestic workers are primarily female. This has a lot to do with how they are regarded in societies where the rights of women are not always highly regarded. Secondly, and related to the first point, because household labour of women, even wives, is not considered legitimate work, on par with that in any profession; respect for the women who perform such vital, but unrecognised tasks, is more often than not, lacking.

This is compounded by our own history of slavery and colonialism, where despite our female forebears having to care for and nurture the slave-owning household, they were never considered as women with equal rights as any other category. The nannies are up to this day referred to as “the girl”, irrespective of age. It was not so long ago that they had to address the children of the household in which they laboured as “Little Master Jack” or “Little Miss Millie”, but the children, taking cue from the parents addressed the nannies only by their first names.

That is our historical legacy. Thankfully, over the years, the struggles of the workers movement, starting with the ‘Georges’ (Mc Intosh and Charles) and the Joshuas (Ebenezer and the less-recognised Ivy), have helped to bring about many advances in terms of workers’ rights, including those of female domestic workers. Yet, it is amazing that in spite of legislation governing wages, conditions of work etc. how many of our women with admirable records in promoting women’s rights still have difficulty in extending that to equal treatment for their own domestic employees?

The Convention adopted by the ILO equates the rights of domestic workers worldwide with those of all other categories of workers. In addition to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the ILO to all workers (freedom of association and collective bargaining, an end to child and forced labour), it spells out some specific rights for domestic workers. These include the right to a written contract, regulation of working hours, health and safety provisions, social security coverage (including medical) and the protection of migrant domestic workers.

Specifically, the Convention recognised the “significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy”, in terms of paid job opportunities, greater scope for the care of the aged, children and people with disabilities, and the substantial income transfers they make within and between countries. Just think of how much our women who do such work in North America for instance, have contributed not only to the welfare of their own families, but also to the development of our economy. The ILO went further, stating that the contribution of domestic workers “continues to be undervalued and invisible”, mainly due to the fact that such work is performed by women and girls, often from migrant and disadvantaged communities, who are therefore vulnerable to discrimination and abuse of their human rights.

The Convention sets out some specific conditions, which are now subject to ratification by two-thirds of the member-countries. For instance, it states that if domestic workers ‘live in’ with their employers, they are entitled to “decent living conditions which respect their privacy”; that they are entitled to keep their identity and travel documents, (a right often denied to migrant workers); and must be paid at least once a month. Though on our books here we have many legal rights, they are not always observed and there are domestic workers who will testify that sometimes, even though their employer collects a monthly salary, sometimes that right is not extended to the worker.

All in all, besides the value of the provisions of the Convention, an even greater value is attached by bringing focus on this category of almost invisible, but highly invaluable worker. It is a group which has suffered gross discrimination, economic and sometimes sexual exploitation, social and even physical abuse. It is a category of workers, which, by the individual nature of their work is difficult to unionize, but which is fundamental to the development of our society. They need more support from us all, especially our labour movement, women’s and human rights organisations.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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