Domestic workers unite behind international convention

MONTEVIDEO (AFP) - Unions representing domestic workers met here on Saturday to urge countries to ratify a year-old international convention that sets minimal labour standards for domestic workers.

So far, only 10 countries have ratified the International Convention on Domestic Workers, which went into effect a year ago in September. But Ms Myrtle Witbooi, president of the International Domestic Workers Network, said, "We are entering a new era for domestic workers."

Ms Witbooi's organisation, which represents 300,000 domestic workers worldwide, is promoting the convention, which gives domestics the right to a minimum wage, daily and weekly rest hours and freedom to choose where they live and how they spend their leave.

"The International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention is for everyone, but if people don't know about it, it can't be invoked," she told AFP. "We need to educate (workers), and we need to find those countries that don't even have national laws, so they can pass laws and ratify the convention."

Uruguay, which was the first country to ratify the convention last year, is hosting the first international conference on domestic work.

"It's already in force here, and has been approved by more than 10 countries, and there are four or five countries in the process of approving it," said Uruguay's Labour Minister Eduardo Brenta. He said salaries of domestic workers in Uruguay have risen 400 per cent over the past eight years, and about 66 per cent have a formal status now.

The ILO estimates that domestic workers - housekeepers, cooks, gardeners and babysitters - account for between 4 per cent and 10 per cent of the workforce in developing countries, and 2.5 per cent in industrialised countries, or about 52.6 million people overall. But the ILO believes the numbers employed as domestics could be as high as 100 million people, because of undercounting by some countries.

Reports presented at the conference said 60 per cent of under age domestic workers were found in Asia, including an estimated 1.5 million in Indonesia, 1 million in the Philippines, 420,000 in Bangladesh and 100,000 in Sri Lanka.

Legal protections for domestic workers are minimal in Asia, according to the ILO, which said 797 cases of torture have been reported by media over the past 10 years in Bangladesh.

In Indonesia, 472 cases of violence against domestics have been reported and in Malaysia 13 domestics were killed in 2011 alone.

Moreover, in 97 per cent of Asian countries, domestic workers have no legal right to weekly rest or annual vacations.

In Latin America, ILO estimates that there are more than 14 million domestic workers, and that it is the principal occupation of women in the region.