Domestic Workers

The ILO estimated in 2015 that 67.1 million people were engaged in domestic work worldwide, of whom 11.5 were international migrants. This represents 17.2 per cent of all domestic workers and 7.7 of all migrant workers worldwide. About 73.4 per cent (or around 8.5 million) of all migrant domestic workers are women.

According to the ILO estimates, 3.16 million people were engaged in domestic work across the Arab States in 2015. Just over half (or 1.6 million) of migrant domestic workers in the region were women. The Arab States also hosted 50.8 per cent of all male migrant domestic workers globally. More recent estimates in a 2018 report to the Abu Dhabi Dialogue on The Future of Domestic Work in the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council put the number of migrant domestic workers at 3.77 million in that sub-region alone. Increased labour force participation amongst women in the region and changes in household structures have revealed deficits in social care services for children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. Families have become increasingly reliant on migrant domestic workers to supplement social care needs to cope with inadequate public social care provisions and affordable private sector providers.

The majority of migrant domestic workers in the Arab States originate from Asian and African countries such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Ethiopia. These workers play a crucial role in the global economy and society, and the remittances they send home contribute to the welfare of their households.

In many Arab States, migrant domestic workers are excluded from national labour legislation, and are tied to their employers or the kafeel (sponsor) through a restrictive sponsorship system known as kafala. As a result, employers wield considerable power over their working and living conditions. Moreover, if an employer fails to renew the work and residence permit or if migrant domestic workers leave their employment without the employer’s permission, they fall into irregular status and become subject to detention and deportation.

The informal, unregulated and isolated nature of their work renders migrant domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and forced labour. Often, they are denied many basic working rights related to remuneration, working hours, periods of rest, retention of their identity documents, leave and freedom of association outside the households they work in.

The ILO Response

In June 2011, delegates at the 100th International Labour Conference adopted a historic international standard to improve the working conditions of domestic workers across the world. The ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)  and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201  stipulate that domestic workers should have the same fundamental labour rights as any other worker: reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payments, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, rights in the recruitment process, and respect for fundamental rights at work, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The ILO strategy on domestic work  serves as a unifying framework for coherent and integrated approaches and encompasses actions at global, regional, and country levels in five broad areas to:
  • Build and strengthen national institutions;
  • Facilitate the organization and representation of domestic workers and their employers;
  • Support the ratification and implementation of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)  and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201;
  • Raise awareness and advocate for domestic workers’ rights;
  • Build up the knowledge base on domestic work; and
  • Exchange experiences between countries.
The ILO Strategy envisages support for countries that are committed to take action that improves the protection and working conditions of domestic workers, regardless of whether these involve ratifying and implementing the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201 in the near future. The strategy also recognizes that substantive change in the lives of domestic workers requires building up of national capacities and institutions, as well as the long and complex process of changing social perceptions and attitudes surrounding domestic work and workers.

Focus Areas in the Arab States

The ILO works with governments, workers, employers and civil society in countries of origin and destination to improve protection of the rights of domestic workers as well as to prevent them from being trafficked or forced into labour. Accordingly, the ILO’s activities include:
  • Supporting governments to ratify and implement the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)  and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201;
  • Supporting governments to revise laws and standard employment contracts that apply to domestic workers in order to bring them in line with national labour laws and international labour standards;
  • Build governments’ capacity through training to improve labour inspection and dispute resolution mechanisms;
  • Conduct reliable research on the scale and nature of domestic worker migration as well as associated implications on social care provisions;
  • Conduct workshops on experience sharing and information sharing with key national stakeholders from different migrant worker destination countries in the Arab States; and
  • Raise awareness of domestic workers’ issues in countries of origin and destination to enhance knowledge of their rights and obligations.
The ILO manages several development cooperation projects that focus on decent work for women migrant workers, including domestic workers, in the Arab States. These include:
  • The ‘Work in Freedom’ Project (Phase II), Joint ILO-UK Department for International Development (DFiD): which focuses on fair recruitment and decent work for women migrant workers, including domestic workers in South Asia and the Middle East.
  • The FAIRWAY Programme, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation: which focuses on decent work for domestic workers, including policy advocacy, organizing and research.