By Erika Guevara Rosas and Christine Ahn
Today millions of women workers from across the globe made history. On the 100th anniversary of the International Labor Organization (ILO), domestic workers secured the passage of the ILO Convention on domestic work for governments to ratify into law.
Juana Flores, a domestic worker with Mujeres Unidas Activas in San Francisco says that with this ruling, “domestic workers, for the first time, will no longer be invisible and unrecognized.” Under the Convention, domestic workers will have the freedom to associate and to collective bargaining. It abolishes all forms of forced, compulsory and child labor, and protects migrant workers by requiring employers to have written and enforceable contracts. Governments must now take measures towards ensuring that domestic workers receive equal treatment as regular workers, such as overtime pay, breaks, and a minimum wage. “Domestic work will be recognized as work equal to any other,” says Flores. “We all deserve a just wage, vacation and sick days.”
This victory at the ILO is also quite significant in other ways.
“Domestic work will be recognized as work equal to any other. We all deserve a just wage, vacation and sick days.”
For one, it was the result of incredible organizing by the most exploited women workers today who suffer multiple oppressions—as low-wage workers, as women, as racial and ethnic minorities, as indigenous people, and as migrants. Their work is generally viewed as unskilled work, a natural extension of women’s work in their own homes. Thus, many domestic workers endure very poor working conditions—many work long hours in difficult and unsafe conditions and are underpaid with no social security coverage. Many are vulnerable to trafficking, sexual, physical and psychological abuse, especially migrants. Despite their isolation, they organized at the local level, built alliances with other domestic workers within their countries and across regions, and then formed the International Domestic Workers Network to take their demands all the way to the ILO.
Also significant is how with the ILO convention, domestic workers have succeeded in gaining the recognition of their contributions to the economy and to society. They have sought recognition as workers—not “maids” or “daughters of the family”—who have the right to the same protections as those won by the working class.
Domestic work is among the oldest and most important occupations for women worldwide. It is an industry that has roots in the global slave trade, colonialism and other forms of servitude. In today’s globalized economy and feminized international migration, several factors make domestic work indispensable for the economy outside the household to function. More women are joining the labor force and working longer and more intense hours. Fewer governments have public policies that help workers reconcile work and family life as more and more child and family care services have been slashed, posing serious problems for rapidly ageing societies. All these factors have increased the demand for domestic workers who maintain vital household routines, thereby allowing millions of others to go out to work.
The recognition of domestic work as labor is the result of over three decades of organizing by domestic workers associations, networks and coalitions, particularly through the Americas where there are more than 10 million domestic workers. In 1988, domestic workers groups from 11 countries met in Colombia to form the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Household Workers. Since then, they have lobbied their governments to improve labor conditions for domestic workers. The most successful so far has been in Uruguay, which currently has the most advanced legislation on domestic employment. The law, passed in 2006, puts domestic workers' rights on an equal footing with those of the rest of the country's labor force. Uruguayan domestic workers have been able to negotiate wage increases and improvements in working conditions and rights. In 2009 Chile passed a law to regulate and gradually make domestic workers' wages equal to the national minimum wage and recently mandated that domestic workers have days off on national holidays. Guatemala also created a special program to protect women employed in private homes and to provide domestic workers with maternal and health care for their children and hospital care in the case of accidents. Although nearly every country in the Americas has a minimum wage for domestic workers, it tends to be lower than the minimum wage for other workers, and in most cases it is not even implemented.
Even in the United States, domestic workers have won significant victories. According to Robert Shepard of the U.S. Department of Labor, “the majority of domestic workers are women and girls—oftentimes from predominantly migrant populations who work in isolated workplaces… are vulnerable to many forms of exploitation, from nonpayment of wages to trafficking.” In 2010, the Domestic Workers United in New York led successful advocacy efforts to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York, the first such U.S. law. Their success has sparked similar efforts in other states, such as in California.
As effective as the international campaign led by domestic workers to adopt the ILO Convention has been in changing the legal framework, the impact of the process of organizing and alliance building has been equally important. Domestic workers across the globe have successfully organized to create their own spaces of popular resistance to their conditions of oppression, exploitation and violence. They have inspired millions around the world that indeed, despite the multiple barriers they face, women can achieve social, economic and political transformation through collective movements.
Erika Guevara Rosas is the Regional Program Director of the Americas and Christine Ahn is the Senior Policy and Research Analyst at the Global Fund for Women.