Opening speech by Anna Biondi, Deputy-director of ACTRAV to the founding congress of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF)

Statement | 26 October 2013
Dear friends,

I am very pleased to be here today bringing you greetings and wishes from Guy Ryder, Director General of the ILO, as well from the entire Organization.

It is a great honor to attend this historic congress, an unprecedented gathering of representatives of the millions of domestic workers who decided to take a major step towards an International Federation, something that six years ago we would not even have dreamed about.

I am sure Myrtle, Elizabeth, Marcelina, Barbro, Marieke, Ida and all the early promoters present here will agree with me.

But, yes, you have made it and you are making it. Tomorrow will be different for domestic workers world-wide.

I said six years ago we would not have dreamed about all this, because at that time I was involved, actually organized, as Secretary of the Workers’ Group, a meeting of like-minded people from the trade union movement ITUC, IUF and from the ILO, from the Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV), but also other departments, GENDER, MIGRANT, IPEC etc.

Luc Demaret – who has been your constant reference from ACTRAV over the years – as well as Manuela Tomei and Jane Hodges come to my mind as ILO colleagues who immediately believed we could make it and they should be recognized right away.

We exchanged information of what was happening in the area of domestic workers. Initiatives in Latin America and Europe, calls for standards, research being conducted, and some legislative innovation in a few countries, or the negotiation of collective agreements. Indeed we realized that a lot of action was taking place and that the pioneers in the quest for decent work for domestic workers had gradually and already overcome some of the obstacles. A movement was taking shape.

Then we looked at the ILO archives and read reports of tripartite meetings back in the thirties and conference resolutions in 1948 and 1965 calling for standard-setting! Much of the problems identified in those days were the same as those that led to standard-setting in 2010: the invisibility in labour legislation, rather the exclusion of domestic workers from labour legislation protection, their being denied the right to freedom of association and to collective bargaining and as a result abuses and exploitation.

It would be unfair to say that nothing was done by the ILO between 1965 and 2007. At the meeting I referred earlier, we realized that many ILO departments were indeed active in either research, providing advice to the courageous pioneers, and supporting meetings and exchanges between emerging networks of domestic workers. But at that 2007 meeting we decided that we should echo within the ILO, the calls for standard-setting that were increasingly being made by domestic workers organizations. The choice of Montevideo for your founding congress is not only relevant in the sense that Uruguay has been the first country to ratify the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, it was also in the very city of Montevideo that Latin American Workers adopted back in 2005, if my memory is correct, the Montevideo Declaration in which strong reference is made to the need for an international labour standard.

It was the Bureau for Workers’ Activities of the ILO that drafted the first document submitted in November 2007 to the Governing Body, getting full support from the Workers’ Group: here I want to pay tribute to Sir Roy Trotman, who used his oratorical skills at his best in order to bring governments and employers to a common engagement.
While in 2007 we failed to get sufficient support from them, thanks to the campaign by the ITUC and IUF, with trade unions approaching each and every government members of the ILO Governing Body, we finally got the majority in March 2008 and the standard-setting item was put on the agenda of the International Labour Conference for 2010. I think it is worth at this founding Congress to remember the role that pioneers of the domestic work Convention played, those who are here present and those who should be remembered although they walked a shorter but equally important way with the movement: I am thinking of Kamalam, Annieke, Claire and many other sisters and brothers.

Dear friends,

Thanks to these efforts and dedicated work, the historic adoption of Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 on 16 June 2011, did more than correct an unacceptable omission and exclusion in the past. It paved the way to the future: by leading to unprecedented alliance building between the trade union movement and what we call civil society organizations or NGOs, in many cases domestic workers’ organizations that were prevented from forming trade unions. But also by leading to an impressive and effective campaign, to new approaches and innovative action, that will definitely inspire the labour movement for years to come. The 12 by 12 campaign launched by this wonderful alliance of ITUC, IUF, the International Domestic Workers Network and NGOs, such as our friends from the Migrant Forum Asia, is an illustration on new ways of developing campaigns.

The ILO standards paved the way to the future in projecting the concepts of basic human rights, rights at work, equal treatment, fair conditions of work into what I would call the “precarious work” economy; which unfortunately is increasing exponentially and constitute a major challenge for trade unions and the ILO alike.

The standards paved the way to the future in encouraging trade unions to rethink their own structure (we call it Autoreforma Sindical in Latin America) to be more inclusive, more gender-sensitive, opened to migrant and undocumented workers. All of this would have proven impossible without your struggle, as part of the International Domestic Workers Network.

In one of her interventions in the 2011 discussion, our sister Halima Yacob who so skillfully led the Workers Group in the difficult negotiation (and who should also be recognized as pioneer) said “our collective responsibility was to provide domestic workers with what they lacked most: recognition as workers; and respect and dignity as human beings”. Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 are about that.

The number of ratifications in a relatively short period of time is impressive and covers all of the worlds’ regions; an equal number of ratifications are in the pipeline with legislative process being completed. Many governments have proceeded to positive change in legislation and collective agreements are being negotiated. We could not have dreamed that six years ago.

But much more remains to be done to effective transform everywhere an employment relationship too often based on exploitation into one based on the respect of rights. The expectation on this founding congress and the stakes are very high.

The ILO is committed to help and work with you to meet that challenge. In fact at its Governing Body in Geneva earlier this week, domestic work was again the subject of an in-depth discussion where a number of governments reported on legislative action and others announced their desire to proceed with ratification. It was decided that the ILO would organize a high-level global conference on decent work for domestic workers to take place probably at the end of 2015, so as to maintain the momentum in our campaign and plan future action.

Dear representatives of domestic workers, dear friends, compañeros y compañeras,

towards the end of her working life, my mother became a domestic worker once she lost her previous job. The first thing she did was to seek social security benefits paid by her employer, something almost unheard in the late 70s. She got them, together with the respect and recognition of her rights at work that she always fought for. She would be very proud to see us all here today, celebrating the achievements and shaping the way forward.

I am sure the International Domestic Workers’ Federation will show the way to Decent Work for the million workers and families it represents already and the millions it will represent in the future: finding strength in unity and in the call for Social Justice!

Long live the domestic workers’ movement, long live trade union solidarity, long live the International Domestic Workers Federation!