Domestic workers around the world play a crucial role in raising children, caring for the elderly and the infirm, and generally supporting those in need of household help. But these same workers are all too often exploited and have little recourse because they are largely excluded from the legal protections that safeguard almost all other workers.
This month at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual conference in Geneva, Switzerland, delegates will take a special look the plight of domestic workers and are expected to set a global standard outlining basic rights for domestic workers. The ILO is part of the United Nations.
In the opening statement for the United States at the first session of the Decent Work for Domestic Workers discussion, the Department of Labor’s Robert Shepard, said:
Domestic workers often work longer hours and receive less wages, while performing work that we can all agree involves a high level of responsibility. Domestic workers are pillars of the modern service economy. The majority of domestic workers are women and girls—oftentimes from predominantly migrant populations who work in isolated workplaces. For these reasons domestic workers, and particularly for migrants and children, are vulnerable to many forms of exploitation, from nonpayment of wages to trafficking.
He noted that laws in many countries do not offer domestic workers the same kind of wage, working condition and other protections most workers enjoy. Even the ILO has not issued a global standard that offers these workers the promise of equal treatment. He urged the delegates to adopt a convention that would apply to all domestic workers. Shephard said the conventions should:
- Ensure domestic workers have the same opportunity as other workers to negotiate the terms and conditions of their work;
- Include special provisions to prevent protect domestic workers from abuse, harassment, violence and trafficking;
- Acknowledge that all parties must “respect, promote and realize . . . the fundamental principles and rights at work.”
Shephard also said employment agencies should be scrutinized. Many global employment agencies provide vital services for workers and employers, but:
We must be careful, however, that those intent on engaging in exploitive or abusive behavior toward domestic workers cannot hide behind the words “employment agency,” engaging in improper behavior while marring the good names of real employment agencies. And second, it is useful in this somewhat uncharted area to set down guidelines for the benefit of both the agencies and those they employ.
As Shephard told the delegates to the conference, which The conference runs through June 7:
We look forward, in the end, to all the governments, the workers, and the employers voting yes to equal treatment and voting “Yes” for justice.
Click here to learn more about the fight to win fairness for domestic workers around the globe.
This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO blog on June 3, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.