International labour standards

Domestic workers: The need to speed up change

We need to step up the speed of change to better protect domestic workers throughout the world, says ILO Wage Specialist Malte Luebker six months after the entry into force of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

Comment | 04 March 2014
By Malte Luebker, Wage Specialist, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

BANGKOK (ILO News) – Over the course of two years, Kartika Puspitasari, a 30-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, was assaulted by her Hong Kong employers, who would burn her with an iron and beat her with a bike chain. The trial judge called her treatment “cruel” and “inhumane”.

Her plight has stirred public outrage. But unfortunately, it’s far from being an isolated case. Far too often, there are reports of violence and gross human rights violations against domestic workers.

But violations of the rights of domestic workers extend well beyond the cases of extreme abuse. They occur every day and around the world in the form of excessive working hours, with no rest time and insufficient pay.

Far too often, there are reports of violence and gross human rights violations against domestic workers."
However, there have been some positive developments since ILO Convention 189 came into force six months ago, on September 5, 2013. Ratified by 12 member states, the landmark convention created a strong momentum towards recognition that the world’s 53 million domestic workers are employees entitled to full labour rights, and not second class workers.

Countries have begun to act, some of them taking small, others bigger steps in the right direction. In Thailand, for example, domestic workers no longer have to work on public holidays, while in Singapore, they are guaranteed a weekly day of rest, and Namibia is setting a minimum wage for domestic workers. In Bahrain, the new Labour Code includes a number of provisions for domestic workers.

In the Philippines, the new Domestic Workers Act sets out detailed rules and protection for domestic workers. The United States has extended wage and overtime protection to the nearly 2 million direct care workers who help elderly or disabled people in their homes. And a few weeks ago, the European Union called on its members to act and to implement Convention 189.

But many governments still exclude domestic workers from the scope of the labour laws that provide other workers with basic rights and protection.

The 21.5 million domestic workers in Asia, and at least 2.1 million of their counterparts in the Middle East, are generally least protected.

Latin America, where there are 19.6 million domestic workers, has shown that better legal protection is feasible. All but a few of the region’s domestic workers are at least partly covered by labour legislation that entitles them to annual leave, a minimum wage and a day of weekly rest. Three quarters are protected by a limit on weekly working hours – although these laws in some cases demand longer hours than for other professions. Nine out of ten domestic workers in Latin America are entitled to maternity benefits under national law.

Does such protection matter to the daily lives of domestic workers?

Granted, compliance with the law is often weak and enforcement needs to be strengthened. Only a third of Brazil’s domestic workers are enrolled under the social security scheme. But this is a huge improvement over the mid-1990s and much better than the blanket exclusion in many other countries. The wages of Brazil’s domestic workers have doubled in real terms over the same period, largely due to substantial increases in minimum wages, which, unlike in most Asian countries, also cover domestic workers.

While labour rights are being strengthened for many domestic workers, there are some worrying signs at the other end of the spectrum; for example domestic workers who remain trapped in child labour and forced labour. While child labour has been on the decline since the turn of the century, the number of children in domestic work has grown from approximately 10.6 million to 11.5 million between 2008 and 2012 (See ILO report "Global estimates and trends 2000-2012: Marking progress against child labour").

We need to step up the speed of change, and the ILO is playing an important role in this, helping formulate necessary reform, raising awareness of workers’ and employers’ rights and duties and supporting ratification of Convention 189.

Kartika Puspitasari’s former employers have been jailed for their repeated physical assaults, but much remains to be done to prevent such abuses in the first place – and to make sure that domestic work is decent work.

A longer article by the same author is available in Poverty in Focus #27 - March 2014, published by the UNDP.