Domestic work

Recognizing the rights of domestic workers

Domestic workers are one of the groups most vulnerable to exploitation, violence, harassment, and forced labour. International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition reminds us that many women end up being trapped in abusive work situations which in some cases may amount to modern forms of slavery.

Feature | 23 August 2018
“Every day, she would tell me that I’m crazy and stupid. I couldn’t take that. But since she kept on saying that every day, I got used to it. Whenever they beat me up, I just cried in a corner”, recalls Julia *, a Filipino domestic worker who suffered constant verbal abuse and physical beating for more than a year before daring to run away to the police.

Around the world, workers who work in isolation, where nobody is watching, are particularly vulnerable to violence and harassment at work. Domestic workers are just such workers. A workforce 67 million strong, domestic workers provide essential care for our homes and loved ones; yet, they frequently suffer forms of violence and harassment, exploitation, coercion, ranging from verbal abuse to sexual violence, and sometimes even death. Domestic workers who live in the homes of their employers are especially vulnerable.

For many of them, daily abuses like lack of rest and non-payment of wages can quickly turn into forced labour. “I was trapped inside; I couldn’t go out. And I didn’t have any money. I was not paid even a single peso. Every time I would ask my employer when I could get my salary, she would say that she will think about it”, explains Julia.

“At the root of this situation is discrimination,” explains Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO Branch related to Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions.

“Domestic workers are often not recognized as workers, and face discrimination as women, often from poor and marginalized groups, such as migrants and indigenous peoples.”

But domestic workers are organizing and leading efforts to achieve decent work. Zainab and Marcelina, two former domestic workers turned leaders of their organizations, each faced years of violence and harassment at work. Despite the difficulty in sharing their stories, they do so because it is a reality the world must know, and to encourage other domestic workers to speak out. As the ILO is currently discussing the possible adoption of a new legal instrument on violence and harassment in the world of work, domestic workers are stepping up and speaking out.


International standards can be powerful tools to protect domestic workers. The ILO Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, adopted in 2011, recognized millions of domestic workers as workers, further empowering them to advocate for their rights, and fight violence and harassment. Furthermore, the ILO Forced Labour Protocol, adopted in 2014, requires member states to take effective measure to prevent forced labour, protect victims and ensure their access to justice. In particular, countries must ensure the relevant legislation applies to all workers in all sectors. This obligation is particularly relevant for domestic workers as one key issue is that they are not always recognized as workers by the national legislation, hence not benefiting from the same rights and protection.

However, to date, 25 countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, another 30 or so have adopted laws or policies extending protections to domestic workers, and only 25 countries have ratified the Forced Labour Protocol. Governments, employers and workers, as well as individual households, all have a role to play to ensure protection of domestic workers from violence and harassment.

Since the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, the ILO adopted a global strategy to support Governments, workers and employers to make decent work a reality for domestic workers. Through this strategy, the ILO has supported some 60 countries to extend protections to domestic workers, ensure compliance with these standards, shift norms, and strength the representation of domestic workers and employers of domestic workers. These country-level experiences on policies such as working time, wages, social security, migration, labour inspections and organizing have been documented and compiled at www.ilo.org/domesticworkers.

Seven years after the adoption of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), find out how you can make your home a decent workplace by visiting www.ilo.org/domesticworkers or www.idwfed.org/myfairhome.


* Testimony collected by the Visayan Forum Foundation, with the support of the ILO.