Migration and development

Empowering migrant domestic workers

During the UNGA high-level dialogue on migration, UN member states and others discuss how to tackle abuses against migrant domestic workers through ILO Convention 189 and effective partnerships for implementation.

News | 07 October 2013
Today, there are over 53 million people serving as domestic workers worldwide. Cooking and cleaning, caring for children, the elderly and the infirm, many in domestic work toil long hours far from home with little, if any, protection from the potential abuse by their employers.

The link between domestic work, global mobility of workers and female international labour migration is well-established. Growing demand for domestic services is one of the main triggers of the feminization of labour migration in the past two decades. Today, women represent around half of the total stock of migrants worldwide, and 83 per cent of all domestic workers in the world are women.

©KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation/Matthew Cassel 2010
These trends are not expected to change with growing needs in the area of care. To raise awareness on the need to promote human and labour rights and decent work for migrant domestic workers, the ILO, in partnership with the Governments of Italy and the Philippines and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, organized a high level panel discussion on "Migrant Domestic Workers: Ensuring Human Rights and Making Decent Work a Reality" on the occasion of the 2nd High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development in New York on Thursday, 3 October 2013.

During this event the Global Action Programme on Migrant Domestic Workers—supported by the EC and implemented by the ILO in partnership with OHCHR and UN Women and with ITUC and IDWN as associates—was launched.

The sphere of domestic employment, is “synonymous with vulnerability because it is hidden from the public eye,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, as he spoke during the event, “Domestic workers are neither servants, nor members of the family.” For these reasons, Ryder said the ILO’s ground-breaking Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) provided a critical platform to discuss why better protection is needed, particularly for female workers in both destination and countries of origin.

Manuela Tomei, Director of the Conditions of Work and Equality Department of the ILO, moderated the discussion and referred in her remarks to the adoption of Convention 189 and its Recommendation, noting that ten countries to date had ratified the convention.

Tomei added that domestic work—a sector which continues to be poorly regulated—remains largely part of the informal economy and therefore vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including excessive hours, physical and sexual abuse, forced labour and confinement.

The Secretary of Labor for The Philippines, Rosalina Baldoz, provided a sending-country perspective, where women are working in different parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East. She said that the Philippines, the second country to ratify Convention 189 in August 2012, has brought together representatives from the government, employers and civil society groups to ensure the effective implementation of the convention’s provisions.

Mr. Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, went on to explain that countries with strong labour laws are the ones which have made the greatest economic progress. He noted that protections guaranteed by Convention 189 were “palpably and obviously correct”, and praised the Philippines for their example in implementing the standards through legislative efforts.

The Central Director from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Luca Maestripieri, highlighted the important contribution which migrants make to societies around the world. He drew attention to the gendered nature of domestic work, noting that 88 per cent of domestic migrant workers in his country are women. Mr. Maestripieri emphasized the important contribution of the female migrant workforce, especially in providing care services for a rapidly aging population in Italy.

Ivan Simonovic, OHCHR’s Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said migrant domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employers since they lack access to rights and protections enjoyed by other categories of workers. “Migrants are not the instrument of development for others,” stressed Simonovic. He called for a push for increased ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention, along with supportive national legislation and standardized contracts for employers and recruitment agencies.

Speaking on behalf of the U.S. Council for International Business (USCIB), Ronnie Goldberg, said the business community is “searching for clear and consistent migration policies.” Goldberg added that migration was a “positive phenomenon” which is “essential for development and growth.” She highlighted the need to monitor recruiting agencies for domestic work, suggesting that ILO can play an important role in assisting governments to monitor international recruiters. . A higher transparency of the international labour recruitment agencies would lead to higher financial gains for both migrants and their employers.

Marissa Begonia, Coordinator of Justice for Domestic Workers (Unite UK), and a domestic worker herself, gave a compelling personal account of the hardships, privation and difficulties that migrants face and the importance of raising awareness and increasing protection for domestic workers through organizing.

Bandana Pattanaik, International Coordinator of the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women (GAATW), highlighted the undervaluation of domestic work as well as drawing attention to issues of race, class and gender which underpin the second class treatment of migrant domestic workers.

The timely discussion addressed a manifold of challenges pervasive in context of domestic work and highlighted the role Convention 189 can play to end exploitation and place migrant rights at the center of the development agenda. The event was followed by the remaining roundtables as part of the High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development, which concluded the following day.