Domestic workers received some much-needed support June 16, when representatives of governments, workers and employers, meeting in Geneva under the auspices of the International Labor Organization formulated a new set of rules, or "convention," calling for their rights - which have been swept under the rug in many countries, including the United States - to be protected by law.
Under the direction of the Obama administration, U.S. representatives backed the new rules.
According to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, "The people who perform this work-overwhelmingly women, migrants and people from historically marginalized communities-are indeed workers, and thus entitled to the same rights and protections that all other workers enjoy." In that respect, the AFL-CIO teamed up earlier this year with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, saying that the fight for domestic workers' rights was part of the fight for all workers' rights.
The term "domestic workers" applies to those who are under the employ of a household: maids, butlers, nannies, children's caregivers and so on.
"We are moving the standards system of the ILO into the informal economy for the first time, and this is a breakthrough of great significance," said Juan Somovia, director-general of the ILO, upon the adoption of the rules.
The convention passed with 90 percent approval. Even many on the right wing of the world political scene hailed the tentative gain in workers' rights. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, "[I]t is ... vitally important ... that you have now adopted this convention on domestic workers. This is an area which has often lain in the shadows of official employment and for which standards are now being established, step-by-step, which fully uphold the principle that all human beings have an equal right to protection of their dignity."
According to an ILO press release, the rules call for domestic workers to enjoy the same labor "rights as those available to other workers: reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payment, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining."
Further, the "Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers," which must be ratified by at least two countries to come into effect, calls for national governments to ensure that discrimination is ended and that child and forced labor be abolished outright.
In addition, the conference passed a series of "recommendations" for national governments to follow.
The scope of domestic labor is huge. After surveying 117 countries, the UN-affiliated organization determined that there were at least 53 million domestic workers around the world. However, given that many of these workers operate "under the table," are undocumented migrants or in some other way are part of the informal economy, that number could be closer to 100 million.
Additionally, in developing countries, up to 12 percent of workers are domestic, and, around the world, 83 percent of them are women or girls.
In the United States, domestic workers were exempted from the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrined into law the rights of most other private workers. According to the NLRA, employers must respect the right of employees to form unions. The law also authorizes workers to strike and bargain collectively. As a result of their exemption, domestic workers often work in the shadows, without even a guarantee of minimum wage.
In some countries, their situation is better, but in many, the situation is even worse. At the conference, a number of governments signaled that they would ratify the convention.
Pre-empting the world body's action was New York, which passed in 2010 the first American law enshrining the rights of domestic workers. Now, California is considering a law modeled off of New York's.
For the law to become binding in the U.S., Congress must ratify it.
Photo: National Domestic Workers Alliance stock photo. Robert B. Livingston // CC 2.0