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Study: Global Domestic Workers Lack Legal Protections

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Lisa Schlein
— A new study finds more than 52 million people around the world, mainly women, are employed as domestic workers and most lack legal protections. The report is the first research of its kind conducted by the International Labor Organization [ILO], and is a follow-up to the adoption of the ILO's Domestic Workers Convention in June 2011.

The ILO reports most domestic workers experience poor working conditions and do not have adequate legal safeguards. ILO Deputy-Director General Sandra Polaski said domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and other violations of their human rights at work.

"Live-in domestic workers in particular are often exposed to physical, mental or sexual abuse and harassment and to restrictions on their freedom of movement. Migrant domestic workers face additional vulnerabilities to exploitation and abuse," she said.

The report focuses on three aspects of working conditions for domestic workers. They include working time, minimum wage coverage and in-kind payments, and maternity protection. Legislation in most countries falls short of the necessary protections.

The ILO finds that only 10 percent of all domestic workers are covered by general labor legislation to the same extent as other workers.  More than one quarter are completely excluded from national labor legislation.

It says more than half of all domestic workers have no legal limitation on their working hours and about 45 percent have no right to weekly rest periods or paid annual leave. It notes that slightly more than half of all domestic workers are entitled to a minimum wage and more than a third of women domestic workers have no maternity protection.

Official statistics show Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean are the regions with the greatest number of domestic workers.  The report says 7.5 percent of women globally perform domestic work. In the Middle East, it notes that one in three female wage earners is a domestic worker.

The ILO considers the estimates in the report conservative. It says official national statistics don't capture the full picture. ILO Working Condition Specialist Martin Oetz said this is particularly the case for Africa where statistics show about 5.2 million domestic workers are employed throughout the region. He said the actual number is believed to be much higher.

"This is often to do with the fact that domestic work and the services performed by domestic workers are not really perceived as work in an employment relationship, but other forms of arrangements," said Oetz. "This is why official data can be expected to underestimate or undercount domestic workers in Africa. But Africa is also a region where domestic work is widespread and very common."

Of all the regions globally, the study notes Asia and the Middle East have the weakest protections for domestic workers. ILO officials say there is room, though, for optimism. They say the momentum created by the new ILO Domestic Workers Convention already has started to translate into concrete action and results in many ILO member states.

They contend that reforms on domestic work have been achieved or are pending adoption in 13 countries. They include Austria, Bahrain, Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, Namibia, Paraguay, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam and Zambia.

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