Ms Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Programme, explains how adopting an international labour standard on domestic work at the 100th ILC would help regulate what is most often an ‘unregulated’ and sometimes hazardous field of work.
Article | 22 April 2011
What would the establishment of an international labour standard on domestic work mean to the tens of millions of women and men working in the homes of others here in Asia and the Pacific?
Manuela Tomei: It would mean quite a lot because it would consist of establishing a minimum protection for domestic workers. This means filling the gaps in many existing national legislations because often domestic workers are not covered by existing labour laws or social security regimes. Therefore, a national instrument on this topic would shed some light and clarity regarding the rights and obligations of domestic workers, their employers, and other actors that come into play such as employment (recruitment) agencies.
There are many types of informal work that also lack social protection. Why specifically target domestic workers? What is special about the problems that they face?
Manuela Tomei: Domestic workers constitute an army of workers who are invisible because they work behind closed doors. Their workplace is the home of those who give them work and very often it is also the home of the domestic worker. I am referring to ‘live-in’ domestic workers. The fact this ‘workplace’ is a ‘household’ raises a number of challenges. Domestic workers work in isolation. They do not have other peers to rely on or refer to. Therefore, being able to monitor what is going on inside the household and verify whether they are receiving the treatment that they should be entitled to raises a number of challenges. Another issue of concern is extremely long hours of work. There is an assumption that domestic workers, especially ‘live-in’ domestic workers, are at the employer’s disposal whenever the employer needs them. This makes extremely heavy working days that may eventually have very bad effects, not only on the well being and health of the workers, but on the safety of the people they are looking after.
Many domestic workers in Asia and the Pacific have crossed borders. They come from different cultures and speak different languages. Is that an added vulnerability?
Manuela Tomei: Very often misunderstandings or conflicts in the workplace originate from problems of communication between the householder – the employer – and the domestic worker. These can be compounded when a migrant domestic worker is not fully aware of his/her entitlements and obligations. So the fact that they do not speak the same language can lead to misunderstandings and tension. A convention or international instrument on domestic work would help address this type of situation. For instance, one of the draft provisions ensures that the terms and conditions of employment are clearly spelled out and fully understood by the worker. In the case of a migrant worker that may take the practical form of ensuring that terms and conditions of employment are provided, preferably in writing, and in a language that can be understood by the domestic worker.
In Asia and the Pacific it is very common for households – even those with lower disposable incomes – to have domestic workers. What does that tell us?
Manuela Tomei: I think this reflects the fact that domestic work is “work” and is in really high demand. But it is often undervalued. There is a problem in acknowledging that this is a contribution to the functioning of the household and the functioning of the labour market. If many families find that they are now able to have a better standard of living because more than one member of the family is freed up to engage in paid work, then this is very often thanks to a domestic worker who is taking care of the domestic tasks and looking after other dependent family members.
Why is it undervalued by some?
Manuela Tomei: It is undervalued because it is work which has been traditionally carried out by women without pay. There is a belief, which is very entrenched, that anyone can perform domestic work, that no special competencies or skills are required, that it is work carried out in a relatively friendly and safe environment and which does not entail any responsibility. But in reality domestic workers take care of our property, our children and even elderly members of the family. The degree of responsibility is very high, especially when they have to engage in child minding or taking care of people with disabilities. At the same time households may not always be safe workplaces.
On a positive note, all the countries of the region recognize the importance and relevance of the topic to their own realities – and the fact that something needs to be done. Action is required at the global level in order to address many abuses and problems that are associated with domestic work. So I think this is already a very important step. Let’s be hopeful that the most meaningful outcome will be agreed upon at the ILC in June 2011.