By Michelle Pressend · 21 Jun 2011
The adoption of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers on 16 June at the 100th International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was a momentous occasion for domestic workers around the world.
This Convention sets out global standards to ensure decent working conditions for domestic workers, which the 183 Member States of the United Nations (UN) will have to implement, as the ILO is a UN agency.
Domestic workers often referred to as “invisible” workers - because they work in isolation in private homes and are subject to the conditions of household employers - are now protected by this international convention.
The Convention is the first of its kind to put in place working conditions for workers in the so-called informal sector. It ensures conditions for working hours, social security protection, occupational health and safety, minimum wages and many other fundamental principles and rights in the work place, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
Recent estimates based on national surveys and censuses in 117 countries place the number of domestic workers around the world at approximately 53 million. However, due to the fact that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, the ILO points out that the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million. Around 83 per cent of these workers are women or girls and many are migrant workers.
The path to adopting the ILO Convention was not an easy one. The ILO has a tripartite system consisting of organised workers represented by trade unions, employers representing the interests of business and industry as well as government representatives. The ILO is the only tripartite organization of the UN, and each of its 183 Member States is represented by two government delegates, one employer and one worker delegate, each constituency has an independent vote.
Observing the negotiations in the Committee on Domestic Workers, the power and interests of some governments and employers certainly came to the fore, often leading to intense debates, particularly, as employers pushed for minimal standards and greater flexibility.
In fact, if the employers had their way, they would prefer not have a Convention and instead opt for “recommendations,” which merely provide guidelines for governments as opposed to establishing progressive laws for the working rights of domestic workers.
Some of the major points of contention included, working hours and ensuring at least a day off as weekly rest, occupational health and safety, the right to privacy in a “private” household and social protection.
The employers as well as the European Union wanted a more flexible approach to time-off or a rest period. For instance, the original text of Article 10 stated “Weekly rest shall be at least 24 consecutive hours in every seven-day period.” The employers and some governments found this text too prescriptive. In the end, it was agreed, “weekly rest shall be at least 24 consecutive hours,” which seems to have accommodated all parties.
Occupational health and safety was another challenging debate.
Employers were concerned that the responsibility would lie with them to provide compensation for injuries occurring in the household and raised concerns about the difficulties associated with proving that injuries occurred in households. Employers often missed the point of the basis of the Convention, which is to ensure the fundamental rights of domestic workers to protection or compensation, as a result of occupational injury.
Coupled with this issue was the right to privacy, as another sticking point, particularly, for live-in domestic workers.
The Convention ensures that domestic workers are free to leave the household during their time of rest or annual leave. The Convention also entitles domestic workers “to keep their travel and identity documents in their possession.” This right is particularly important for migrant domestic workers.
The Convention puts the onus on governments to “establish criteria for the registration and qualification of employment agencies.” This clause is extremely important as it prevents the operation of illegitimate agencies that recruit poor, vulnerable women, particularly from rural areas, who are often mistreated, subjected to abuse and have to pay recruitment fees or provide portions of their income to the recruitment agencies.
Some governments and employers were also hesitant to extend social security protection (taken for granted by other workers), such as maternity leave, pension and medical aid contributions, to domestic workers. Employers were particularly concerned about additional financial resources that they would have to provide.
Some countries do have minimum labour legislation in place such as minimum wages for domestic workers and minimal social security protection - for example, mechanisms for unemployment insurance and maternity leave, amongst others.
However, there are those that have even better labour legislation, besides minimum wages.
For example, the Brazilian government, through its social housing programme, allows domestic workers to receive a housing subsidy. After a period of ten year’s, they own the house they’ve been renting.
In Taiwan domestic workers are covered by a healthcare scheme where domestic workers contribute US$7 per month. The government runs the health fund and employers also make a contribution. However, if they become chronically ill they are sent home and do not receive the health benefit.
Unfortunately, there are also countries that have no labour legislation for domestic workers whatsoever. In these cases, working and living conditions are left to the whims of the household employer, which puts the women working in these homes in very precarious circumstances.
During the negotiations, the South African government, which also represented the African group, was extremely supportive of the Convention and the rights of domestic workers. In the international arena South African laws are seen as progressive compared to other countries and international representatives often referred to the South African Domestic Workers’ Act.
The South African Domestic Workers' Act sets out minimum wages for workers and specifies working conditions such as hours of work, overtime pay, salary increases, deductions, annual and sick leave.
The legislation sets out two categories of minimum wages: one for urban and the other for non-urban areas. Current wages are under review. The Department of Labour recently held national hearings inviting domestic workers to a discussion about a wage review.
In South Africa the minimum wage for a domestic worker working more than 27 hours a week in an urban area is R1506.34 per month and in a non-urban area, R1256.14 per month.
The hourly rate for domestic workers also varies depending on the area they work in. For example, domestic workers working less than 24 hours a week do not qualify to be registered for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).
The number of workers in South Africa who work as domestics, gardeners, child minders (including drivers of children) and those who look after the sick, aged or disabled in private homes is estimated to be 1 to 1.5 million. Yet, the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) has only about 15 000 members nationally.
One of SADSAWU’s key campaigns is to advocate for a living wage rather than a minimum wage. Domestic workers in South Africa often have dependents and have to cover housing, health, education and transport costs.
The South African government provides practically no social protection for domestic workers in terms of healthcare, housing subsidies, transport subsidies and pension funds -- though the Department of Labour is investigating a provident or pension fund for domestic workers.
So while the adoption of the Convention for Domestic workers is a huge victory, the next step is for governments to ratify the Convention so that it is applied at national levels in all countries. However, like all Conventions, the big challenge is giving effect to it in a way that it will make a difference to and improve the living and working conditions of the millions of domestic workers in South Africa and around the world.