International Domestic Workers’ Day

'I dared to ask'

One woman’s courage led to greater protection for domestic workers in South Africa. Her struggle illustrates the challenges faced by all vulnerable workers.

Feature | 16 June 2015
"We were slaves in our country and had no voice,” says Myrtle Witbooi.
GENEVA (ILO News) – “My story begins in a small room in the backyard of an employer’s house, where I worked for nearly 12 years. I was separated from my child when she was one month old – because a domestic worker cannot have her children or her husband with her,” says Myrtle Witbooi.

Witbooi reflects on her life back then: “We worked seven days a week and simply remained in that little room in the back of the house. We were slaves in our country and had no voice. We received little or no pay.”

Nearly 50 years later, the former domestic worker is now General-Secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and President of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).

It is thanks to the organizing efforts by the IDWF, their 47 affiliates from 43 countries, as well as other domestic workers organizations around the world that the struggle of domestic workers has been placed in the spotlight. Their struggle is one familiar to other vulnerable groups of workers, including migrants and youth, often forced by poverty to take work in precarious situations.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are around 53 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 per cent of whom are women. Without clear terms of reference, unregulated payment scales and unregistered status, domestic workers are among the most vulnerable groups of workers in the world.

Witbooi‘s life changed one day when she decided to speak up: “In one minute my life was changed when I dared to ask why are we different? Why do we have to suffer like this?”

A local journalist helped Witbooi organize meetings with other domestic workers. “I started on this around 1965. And I still remain committed to this struggle,” she adds. “It was not easy - they tried to silence me but today we are free.”

A historic convention

Things have indeed come a long way for Witbooi and domestic workers around the world.

In June 2011, the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) became the first international labour standard to guarantee domestic workers the same basic rights as those available to other workers. These include limits on hours of work, weekly days off, minimum wage, payment of overtime, social security, and clear terms and conditions of employment.

There is some innovation in trying to get domestic workers better protected, but we still have a long way to go."

Since the adoption of Convention 189 and its accompanying Recommendation, the list of countries ratifying has grown to 21. Chile, Panama and Belgium were the last countries to ratify it during this year’s International Labour Conference. The ILO has also observed changes in law and policy to improve the rights of domestic workers in some 60 countries – and this movement appears to be growing.

“Policymakers are talking more about strengthening labour market institutions – such as minimum wages – to cover categories of workers who have traditionally fallen outside the reach of labour laws, as a strategy to curb inequalities, reduce informality and prevent labour abuses,” says Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Equality Department. “There is some innovation in trying to get domestic workers better protected, but we still have a long way to go,” she explains.

“Too many domestic workers still are not considered as workers by national legislation, and when they are, law enforcement is often lax and the disrespectful treatment of domestic workers remains well-entrenched.”

Indeed, decent work for domestic workers begins at home, with individual employers and workers knowing and respecting each other’s rights and responsibilities.

Employers have also shown their readiness to engage in dialogue with a number of policy actors to improve the working and living conditions of domestic workers. At the country level, there are already examples of national employers’ organizations that have started to do so.

The ILO has been collaborating with both workers’ and employers’ organizations to develop their capacities to respond to the needs of domestic workers.

“The ILO has a big role to play, to reach out to countries that still exploit this sector and to help strengthen the federation when it comes to educating workers, so that C189 can become a powerful tool for justice,” says Witbooi. “Our task has just begun.”