Global federation founded to advocate for domestic workers’ rights

A global federation of domestic workers has been founded to organize domestic workers worldwide, share strategies across regions, and advocate for their rights.

The International Domestic Workers Federation was founded during a meeting of labor leaders from more than 40 countries in Montevideo, Uruguay from 26th to 28th October 2013.

International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch praised the move to found the global federation of domestic workers.

They said it was a sign of the growing strength of the movement, and a key moment to assess progress for workers long excluded from basic labor protections.

There are an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide – the majority of whom are women and girls, and many of whom are migrants.

Twenty five countries improved legal protections for domestic workers in the past two years. Many of the strongest reforms were carried out in Latin America.

Some of the biggest challenges loom in the European Union, which has a growing elderly population depending on the services domestic workers provide, and the Middle East and Asia, where progress has been weak and some of the worst abuses occur.

“Even though domestic workers provide critical services that families depend on – cooking, cleaning, and child care – we have faced discrimination and marginalization for generations,” said Myrtle Witbooi, chair of the International Domestic Workers Network. “That should end.”

IDWN, the ITUC, and Human Rights Watch have released a new report, “Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labor Reform.”

The report charts ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, national labor law reforms, and the growing influence of emerging domestic workers’ rights movements.

According to the ILO, almost 30 percent of the world’s domestic workers are employed in countries where they are completely excluded from national labor laws, including weekly rest days, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, and overtime pay. Even when partially covered, domestic workers are often excluded from key protections such as minimum age requirements, maternity leave, social security, and occupational health measures.

On 5th September 2013, the Domestic Workers Convention entered into legal force. This groundbreaking treaty adopted in 2011 establishes the first global standards for domestic work. Under the new convention, domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as those available to other workers.

Only ten countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention: Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Italy, Bolivia, Paraguay, South Africa, Guyana, and Germany.

“The momentum of ratifications and improved laws in Latin American nations and a number of other countries shows that governments are capable of protecting domestic workers,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC. “Governments that have lagged – particularly in Asia and the Middle East – need to act without delay.”

Despite recent legal advances in some countries, many domestic workers are still grossly underpaid and forced to work long hours, seven days a week. Denial of pay is a common abuse. Many women and girls are unable to leave households where they work, and may face psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.

Certain categories of domestic workers, including those who live in the household where they work, children, and migrants face heightened risk of abuse.

Recent ILO research found that while child labor in other sectors has declined in recent years, child domestic labor increased by 9 percent between 2008 and 2012. International migrants may face exploitation linked to abusive recruitment practices, restrictive immigration policies, discrimination, and poor access to redress.

ILO, Human Rights Watch, IDWN, and the ITUC have documented that domestic workers can get trapped in situations of forced labor, including trafficking.

“This array of human rights abuses against domestic workers underlines the urgency for better laws, stronger enforcement, and a dramatic shift in how domestic work is valued,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Addressing and preventing these abuses will affect millions of lives.”

Organizing domestic workers has many challenges, both practical – in terms of limited time and mobility – and legal. In some countries, domestic workers are legally barred from forming their own unions or joining other unions, especially when they are also migrants. For example, Bangladesh,Thailand, and the United States deny domestic workers the right to form unions to fight for their rights.

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