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Time for Arabs to live up to their call for social justice by protecting vulnerable workers

Which Arab country will be the first to ratify the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers?

Comment | 15 August 2012
The ratification of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers by the Philippines this week marks a watershed in the fight to extend fundamental labour rights to nearly 100 million domestic workers worldwide. The Philippines is the second country – after Uruguay – to adhere to this important instrument and its ratification brings the Convention into force next year.

Nada Al-Nashif, Regional Director for the Arab States, International Labour Organization
The first Asian country to commit to respect the rights of domestic workers is also a major source country of these migrant labourers. Over 150,000 domestic workers from the Philippines, mainly women, travel to other parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East each year seeking better wages to lift their families out of grinding poverty.

These women enter the homes of complete strangers in foreign environments, where they may spend years cleaning their houses, cooking their food, raising their children, and caring for their elderly. While some are treated with the fairness and dignity they deserve, others are routinely exposed to crushing physical and moral harassment, sometimes leading to mental problems, severe injury or even death, and find themselves with no access to justice as a result of legal and regulatory systems that are stacked against them.

This is particularly relevant in Arab countries. Nearly a quarter to one third of the Arab world’s estimated 22 million migrant workers are women engaged in domestic work. Most of them come from Asia and Africa, mainly Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

In the majority of Arab countries, domestic workers are excluded from national labour legislation, social security regimes and health and safety provisions. Those who come from overseas are usually tied to their employers through a restrictive sponsorship system, many have their passports and papers seized by employers, and are subjected to living under effective ‘house arrest’. The informal, unregulated and isolated nature of their work renders them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, which is why they warrant particular attention.

Ratifying the Domestic Workers Convention would enable governments ... to enshrine into national law those values at the heart of the Arab uprisings: human dignity and social justice."
Nada Al-Nashif
I was pleased to note at the International Labour Conference in June 2011, that Arab delegates overwhelmingly voted for the adoption of Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Now that the Convention has entered into force, even those countries that have not ratified it are expected to ‘work towards it’. This means that any future legislation across ILO member states, must take into account the new labour standard, even if they are not yet legally bound to apply it.

The critical next step is to consider the ratification of C189. Ratifying the Domestic Workers Convention would enable governments to harmonise national legislation and other regulatory instruments with this historic international labour standard, and to enshrine into national law those values at the heart of the Arab uprisings: human dignity and social justice.

Arab countries have made some progress and are increasingly adopting good practices: instituting unified contracts, tackling working conditions, improving labour inspection systems, and seriously looking to overhaul or eliminate heavily skewed sponsorship systems. These important actions are welcome in the spirit of the Convention – but ratification must be the goal.

The ILO Regional Office for Arab States, from its base in Beirut, stands ready to support this process across the region with the help of our technical and legal experts and unique tripartite structure. We can assist governments, engage recruitment agencies and employers, and join forces with civil society actors to provide domestic workers who care for families and households with the same basic labour rights as those available to other workers: decent work with adequate protection; fair remuneration and benefits; reasonable hours of work, days off and leave days; clear information on terms and conditions of employment; and respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

We believe that the struggle for social justice starts here: protecting vulnerable workers.

The transition to democracy that is underway in the Arab region proves that building productive and inclusive societies is a requirement for social stability. The principles of Decent Work must be at the heart of these transformations – supporting and ratifying Convention 189 is the right step forward.

By Nada Al-Nashif, Regional Director for the Arab States, International Labour Organization