October 19 2022

Decent work for domestic workers: a reality 11 years after C189?

Eleven years after the adoption of ILO Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 on decent work for domestic workers, and ten years after its entry into force, more than 100 women came together to assess progress and exchange good practices and different strategies for monitoring this important international standard. On 7 October, the date designated as WDDW - World Day for Decent Work, leaders of social and trade union movements from four continents came together at the virtual Forum: 10 years C189 and R201, which was organised by the International Network for the Right to Social Protection INSP!R, with the support of the Belgian organisations WSM and the Confederation of Christian Trade Union (CSC).

“We should not hide because we are domestic workers”

Let us be truly clear: a lot of work remains to be done. Connected from Guinea (West Africa), Assiatou Balde, from the National Union of Guinean Workers, tells us about a domestic worker who did not accept the harassment she faced during her work. Rejecting her situation and opposing it resulted in her imprisonment. Thanks to the support of the union, she has been released after two months.

Violence and harassment are one of the most important violations that domestic workers face in their work. Because of the invisibility of their work, in private homes, depending on the owner and his/her willingness or unwillingness to respect rights and provide good working conditions. “But this is not the only violation of our rights,” Assiatou continues. “Many domestic workers in Guinea do not even have a single day off. Moreover, they have to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go to bed only at 10 o’clock at night.” Within this exaggerated working day, the workers provide all kinds of care, adds Grâce Papa of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions, which represents domestic workers among other sectors: “in the morning, childcare, then cleaning the house and doing the laundry, and in the evening, caring for the adults and grandparents if they are at home.” And all the time, domestic workers must carry out their work as invisibly as possible. “But it is not because we are domestic workers that we have to hide,” Assiatou concludes. “We have to be proud of our work and see ourselves as workers just like everyone else.”

Difficult implementation

Today, only 35 countries have ratified Convention 189. However, good implementation of the Convention is not yet the case in many of these countries. In Peru, the Convention was ratified in 2018, after several years of campaigning and advocacy by trade union organisations and domestic workers’ movements such as the Institute for the Promotion and Training of Domestic Workers IPROFOTH. “The challenges of implementing the law on domestic work remain many,” says Ernestina Ochoa of IPROFOTH. “These workers are paid well below the minimum wage (the ITUC has calculated that, worldwide, domestic workers earn 50% of the average monthly wage of other wage earners); and many of them are not affiliated to the social security system (health, pension, etc.) Our big job now is to continue raising awareness among workers, training and disseminating the content of the law, so that more of them know its content and their rights.”

Same testimony from Lissy from the CTUI union in India. India has not yet ratified C189, but the union has made a big effort in recent years to make domestic workers' work more visible. “The most important thing is to sensitise and train domestic workers, so that they know their rights, learn how to claim them and how to negotiate.” In India, domestic workers are mainly women from minority groups of society, who already find themselves in precarious and vulnerable situations. “Our strategy is to raise awareness and conduct political campaigns from the local to the national level. We are currently campaigning to sensitise members of the national parliament who also have domestic workers in their homes! We ask them about the working conditions of their domestic workers, but they don’t like to talk about it. India is a very patriarchal society. But for us, it is an awareness-raising strategy, because if we expect them to vote for laws in favour of domestic workers, they have to start applying good conditions in their own homes. Already today, three states in the country have a minimum wage for domestic workers.”

The conventions as a frame of reference

Luc Cortebeeck, who was the workers' spokesperson at the 2011 Conference when Convention 189 was negotiated and adopted, was extremely impressed by the testimonies and so much engagement. “It was one of the most historic moments for the ILO, a dynamic of many interactions of the domestic workers who were present in Geneva, with governments and employers. It was totally new for many of them. But we did manage to translate their demands into the international instrument. The key point is the recognition of domestic workers as workers. This recognition cannot be underestimated, which means that all the ILO conventions and recommendations serve as a frame of reference for them and must be applied to them as to other workers: Convention 190 against violence and harassment in the world of work, the conventions on occupational safety and health, on child labour and forced labour, etc. While it is the responsibility of governments to ratify and implement these conventions, the role of trade unions and other organisations organising workers, domestic and other, is crucial to monitor and follow up on good implementation.” “Rights are never acquired forever,” concludes Luc Cortebeeck. “The commitment of social movements is the most important thing to continue to put pressure on governments and demand rights, with the ILO conventions as a frame of reference.”


Gijs Justaert | WSM



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