19 March 2013

The New Slave Labour

Who would think that in 2013, the situation of domestic workers would be no better  than in Victorian times? The UN Agency The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has just produced a report entitled Domestic Workers, which is the first of its kind looking in depth at working conditions and the extent of legal protection enjoyed by domestic workers worldwide.  At least 52 million domestic workers worldwide experience poor working conditions and insufficient legal protection, according to the report.

The report also reveals that these domestic workers (a person who is employed in a private household carrying out domestic work such as cleaner, gardener and elderly carer) of whom 83% are female, account for 7.5% of women’s wage employment worldwide - and a far greater share in some regions, particularly Asia, the Pacific region, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Despite the size of the sector, many domestic workers experience poor working conditions and insufficient legal protection.  Sandra Polaski, ILO deputy Director General, said: “Domestic workers are frequently expected to work longer hours than other workers and in many countries do not have the same rights to weekly rest that are enjoyed by other workers - combined with the lack of rights, the extreme dependency on the employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”

The ILO report showed that only 10% of all domestic workers are covered by general labour legislation to the same extent as other workers. More than a quarter are completely excluded from national labour organisation.

More than half of all domestic workers have no limitation on their weekly normal hours under national law and approximately 45% have no entitlement to weekly rest periods.  Just over half of all domestic workers are entitled to a minimum wage equivalent to that of other workers.  Lack of legal protection increases domestic workers vulnerability and makes it difficult for them to seek remedies. As a result they are often paid less than workers in comparable occupations and work longer hours.

The report showed that live-in domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation since they are often paid a flat weekly or monthly rate irrespective of hours worked. In practice, that means a domestic worker is available whenever needed.

Sandra Polaski added: “ The large disparities between wages and working conditions of domestic workers compared to other workers in the same country underline the need for action at the national level by governments, employers and workers to improve the working lives of these vulnerable but hardworking individuals.”

The report also showed that between the mid-1990s and 2010, there was an increase of more than 19 million domestic workers worldwide.  Many migrate to other countries to find work.  The ILO suggests it is likely that the figures contained in the report underestimate the true numbers of domestic workers worldwide, which may in reality be tens of millions more.

The figures also exclude child domestic workers below the age of 15 that are not included in the surveys used by the report.  Their number was estimated by the ILO at 7.4 million in 2008. 

The report, published recently by the ILO covered 117 countries and had an employment coverage of 88.7% within those countries.

A little bit of history of this very effective UN agency: The ILO was founded in 1919, in the wake of a destructive war, to pursue a vision based on the premise that universal, lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice. The ILO became the specialized agency of the UN in 1946.  It is now the international organisation responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards.

One of the great strengths of the United Nations is its global reach.  No other organisation could conduct such a wide-ranging survey with authority. It is also in a position to put pressure on national governments to make sure that they introduce humane laws to protect workers in their country. 

The position of the British Government on the issue of domestic workers is interesting.  On 12th December 2012, the Kate Willingham of Anti-Slavery International wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills as follows: “Today, 12 December 2012, is being marked globally as a day of action for ratification of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which has now entered into force following its formal adoption by four countries. On this occasion, we urge you and your colleagues to promote and protect the rights of domestic workers by ratifying the Convention and its accompanying Recommendation, as well as restoring essential protections for migrant domestic workers in the UK.” 

Convention No. 189 is a ground breaking treaty which establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, who clean, cook, and care for children and the elderly in private households. Despite their contributions to the global economy, domestic workers are vulnerable to a wide range of abuses. These include excessive hours of work with no rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse, forced labour and trafficking.  Convention No. 189 provides desperately needed and long overdue protections, including special protections for child domestic workers and migrant domestic workers.

Despite this the UK Government has publically stated in an explanatory memorandum laid before Parliament on 27 April 2012, that whilst the UK supports the principles behind the Domestic Workers Convention, it does not think that ratification of the Convention is appropriate for the UK because of the burdens that implementing the health and safety provisions would impose on UK business and citizens.

This very short-term view will store up future trouble for the UK Border Agency, the Home Office and most of all for thousands of UK domestic workers themselves.

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