Migrant domestic workers – organising for change

Category: General

20 Apr 2016

Karin Pape, European Regional Coordinator of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF)


Domestic workers celebrate the ratification of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention C189 in June 2011 (image: IDWN ILO Blog)

Over the last 10 years, organized domestic workers have entered the international scene and created a movement. It achieved the first ever comprehensive, international standard, which regulates minimum working conditions for domestic workers – the ILO Convention 189 that was adopted in 2011. How did a bunch of invisible, disperse, marginalized workers – many of whom are migrants – successfully organize for change?

Almost every fifth out of the estimated 67 million domestic workers in the world is an international migrant. In addition, in many countries, for example, in Latin America, there are internal migrants – women from rural areas going to the cities in order to find domestic work. The vast majority of all domestic workers, migrants and nationals alike, are women.

There are many vulnerabilities, which are shared by migrant and national domestic workers. However, there are some aspects specific to migrant domestic work. Among others, these are:

  • Migrant domestic workers are at the crossroads of origin and destination countries’ policies with regard to immigration laws and laws which regulate the labour market in the destination countries. These frameworks define the level of labour protection and sometimes provide very little or almost no protection at all.
  • Migrant domestic workers are in particular exposed to violations of human and labour rights as they face disadvantages, compared to nationals, with regard to power relations: th

    In many countries, like here in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers enjoy even less legal protection than their national colleagues (image: Middle East Online)

    ey often have language deficits, are not familiar with the rights and customs in the countries they work, they lack access to local support networks and are reluctant to report abuses because they fear deportation. Living with the employer can mean to be staying in a protected environment, but too often live-in migrant domestic workers are subject to violence, including sexual abuses and other human rights violations.

Getting from the “kitchen table to the UN” did not come out of the blue. Domestic workers around the globe have a long history of organizing. However, the first international gathering of domestic workers in 2006 in Amsterdam triggered a process of international organising. In this context, the ILO Convention was seen as one tool to achieve a “global movement of domestic workers”, as stated by Marcelina Bautista, the then Chair of the Confederación Latinoamericana de Trabajadoras del Hogar (CONLACTRAHO) during the Amsterdam Conference in 2006.

The Amsterdam Conference in 2006 brought together active domestic workers’ organizations, as well as a wide range of support organizations, such as: trade union organizations, international NGOs and networks like Anti Slavery International, Migrant Forum Asia (MFA), Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), to name just a few. This broad alliance was kept and used strategically to involve organized domestic workers in the process of getting an ILO Convention from the very beginning.

The ILO Convention No. 189 does not distinguish between migrant and national domestic workers. It applies to all domestic workers (Article 2.1). However, there are some Articles, which refer to particular protection needs of migrant domestic workers, such as:

  • having contracts before departing from their country of origin (Article 8),
  • the regulation of (cross-boarder) recruitment agencies (Article 15), and
  • the right to keep one’s travel and identity documents (9 c).

In order to be informed about and enforcing rights, it is indispensible for workers in general, but in particular for migrant domestic workers, to organize into organizations of their choosing. Trade unions have increasingly become open to take on vulnerable occupational groups, which are not part of traditional work forces. If they have done so with regard to domestic workers, they have realized that – unlike other workers – domestic workers do not organise and, in fact, cannot be organized at the work place. Individual membership raises expectations that the unions cannot meet and leads to frustrations on both sides. These may even develop into an anti-union, hostile attitude from the side of the workers. Only when (migrant) domestic workers have already formed pre-organizations and enter into “negotiations” with a union as a group, which includes being represented in trade union decision-making bodies, organizing (migrant) domestic workers can be successful. In fact, migrant domestic workers, including the undocumented, are among the most active if they are represented in the unions.

Despite all progress, the relationship between (migrant) domestic workers and trade unions is still “in the making” and everything but easy. Very often stereotypes on both sides persist, such as:

  • “It is impossible to organize domestic workers.”
  • “Unions don’t do anything – they just want my money.“

I am looking forward to discuss these and other experiences, including those from the audience, during a guest lecture at the ISS on 26 April 2016.

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