Domestic Workers

The ILO estimates that 53 million people are engaged in domestic work worldwide. This figure does not include child domestic workers, a phenomenon that is steadily rising in both developed and developing countries. Some 83 per cent of domestic workers are women.

The ILO estimates that 2.1 million people are engaged in domestic work across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and one in five women workers are domestic workers. 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 MENA originate from Asian and African countries such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia 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 countries, migrant domestic workers are excluded from national labour legislation, and are often tied to their employers through a restrictive sponsorship system known as Kafala. Kafala ties workers to their employers, the kafeel (sponsor), who then determine the working and living conditions.

The informal, unregulated and isolated their work renders migrant domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and forced labour. Often, they are denied many basic working rights related to remuneration, periods of rest, retention of their identity documents, leave and freedom of association outside the domiciles 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, 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. With an initial timeframe of 2012-2015, the ILO strategy 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 for action 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 the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201 in the near future. The strategy also recognises 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 and protect the rights of domestic workers as well as to prevent them from being trafficked or forced into labour. Accordingly, the ILO’s activities include:

  • Support governments to ratify and implement the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201;
  • support governments to revise laws and standard contracts that apply to domestic workers in order to bring them in line with 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.
To advocate for the ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201 the ILO has launched a regional project entitled “Decent Work for Domestic Workers," aimed at providing options for Arab States governments to reform policies related to domestic workers and bring them in line with international standards.

The ILO is also collaborating with UN Women on a project that supports migrant domestic workers travelling from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East throughout their journey from their countries of origin to their destinations, and upon their return home. The Joint ILO-UK Department for International Development project entitled ‘Work in Freedom’ is also part of the ILO’s Labour Migration focus in the Arab States and promotes education, fair recruitment, safe migration and decent work for migrant domestic women in South Asia and the Middle East.