New international rules on domestic workers – will they make a difference?

This week’s issue maidscovers a new ILO Convention on domestic workers. A quick skim of Google News suggests it was the only magazine from the mainstream UK media to do so. “Without them many an economy would grind to a halt: the global army of between 50m and 100m domestic workers, most of them women and children. Yet tucked away in kitchens and nurseries, mainly in the Middle East and Asia, their wages often go unpaid, they are rarely granted any time off, and many face physical and sexual abuse. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) hopes to change all this with a new treaty adopted on June 16th at its annual conference. The Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers has been three years in the making. Its goal is to limit working hours, guarantee weekly days off, ensure a minimum wage and protect domestic workers from violent employers. Only a few delegates—government officials as well as national representatives of employers and workers—voted against (Swaziland and a couple of employer groups, including the Confederation of British Industry), but there were some notable abstentions. Predictably, they included Malaysia. A series of abuse cases led Indonesia to ban its citizens from going to work there as maids from 2009 until May this year. More surprisingly, the British government, too, preferred not to vote either way. It said the treaty would be too onerous, particularly the parts regulating working hours and health and safety.” domestic workersApart from the apparently shameful performance of the Brits, why does this matter? What difference does a convention make? I was pretty sceptical until I saw their impact on the ground – like the indigenous activist in Bolivia who told me that ‘ILO Convention 169 [on indigenous and tribal peoples] changed my life – when I read it, the indigenous part of me woke up’. An unusual conversation, true, but conventions can act as a kind of normative nudge, capturing where international sentiment has got to on a particular issue, pushing it further into domestic politics and moving the debate on a bit (not too far, or the convention won’t get passed or ratified). I saw this osmotic effect on both laws and attitudes when researching for a book, ‘Hidden Lives: Voices of Children in Latin America and the Caribbean’ in the 1990s, when the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was rapidly trickling down into new child protection legislation across the region, and a new awareness of child rights. Let’s hope the same thing happens on domestic workers – a particularly complex situation of isolation and invisibility that can become very nasty indeed, for example in the case of the restavek child domestics in Haiti. But I’m sure many such conventions have no impact at all – anyone seen any analysis of why some get traction and others don’t?]]>

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6 Responses to “New international rules on domestic workers – will they make a difference?”
  1. Stephen Maturin

    Great article and discussion, but I can’t agree on the Economist geting better! Their opposition to UK electoral reform was the last straw for me, and I cancelled my subscription.
    And while I am whingeing….why did ILO come bottom in the DfID recent Multilateral Aid Review process?
    One analysis could be in order to pander to new political masters – but more likely it is due to the the simplistic shift to having attributable numerical results that DFID is taking, and consequently being increasingly unable to see the value of strategic influencing and catalytic interventions that will have a much bigger impact on sustainable development outcomes.

  2. Rob

    The coverage internationally was over all pretty poor. I guess for many the issue remains hidden, plus conventions don’t make exciting news. Some conventions get huge sign up whereas others don’t (e.g. migrant workers convention). Most act as a statement of intent for the government, and as you say, a normative framework. It is only the Optional Protocols to several treaties that aim to add ‘teeth’ – though even here we are looking at ‘recommendations’ and ‘rulings’ rather than the ability to bring redress or sanction.

  3. Catherine Dom

    Not sure about getting more “right wing” with age or they getting more centre which seems to be politically correct about everywhere (not a nice prospect actually, and I wouldn’t accuse you to do this Duncan!) or rather that you know where they come from and can negotiate your own comfort zone around theirs. But to respond to the final question no, and that would be a fascinating piece enriching the theory of change work stream. Cheers

  4. Michael

    The Economist is a little less insane wingnut than it was during the Bush years. In addition, its international coverage has always been much, much better than its Western Europe/US coverage, because the latter is hobbled by the magazine’s ideological blinders.

  5. Oliver Pearce

    Good that the Economist highlighted this important covention for the around 100 million vulnerable domestic workers around the world.
    In the UK, domestic workers have been supported by unions and NGOs, and together we’ve pressed the UK government to support and sign the convention.
    We highlighted the government’s obstructive negotiating in the Independent ( and we got the Guardian ( highlight the UK’s refusal to vote for the Convention.
    Since then we’ve highlighted the UK position for instance here ( supported MPs in the Adjournment debate on the ILO Convention in parliament last week. We need to keep up the pressure on the UK government, and welcome Oxfam’s interest.
    On impact, I think the process of agreeing this ILO Convention has already led to better laws and practice in some countries, and more importantly, many domestic workers now know better their rights and how to demand them. We need more ratifications and better respect for domestic workers, but we’ve already seen a positive impact.
    Oliver Pearce
    Middle East: policy & advocacy
    Christian Aid

  6. Inorisa S. Elento

    This is a welcome news for all human rights advocates and that also a salutation for many who are supporting, working and directly engaging in the treaty adoption of the ILO Convention for Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
    This is an initial step yet still an uphill battle to reality. Particularly in the Philippines, the so-called national law ” Magna Carta for Domestic Workers” still remains in the debating floor in Congress and Senate.
    Down the local government units no amount of recognition has ever taken seriously to promote the rights and welfare of domestic workers. A serious fact for those who are working as local household workers.
    Our organization, the Mindanao Migrants Center for Empowering Actions, Inc. (MMCEAI) takes active positions mainstreaming the rights agenda of domestic workers both local and overseas.
    Our collective action requires us to be more bold and emphatic.