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ILO to Set up Legal Instruments on Domestic Workers

One of the most striking problems for the enforcement of labour standards in developing countries is the huge informal sector that is to be found in most of the labour markets in the Southern hemisphere. In a number of Latin-American countries the percentage of formal employment is below 50 per cent. This means that not even half of the workforce in these countries has an employment contract. These workers, who often have the status of being self-employed or no defined status at all, are typically uncovered by most labour law provisions. This may be so because national labour law simply does not apply or because it is not enforced when it comes informal workers.

To tackle at least a part of this problem, the ILO is currently negotiating a convention and a recommendation on domestic workers. Domestic workers form in many countries a major part of the informal workforce and up to 10 per cent of the total workforce. Given that domestic workers work per definition not in central workplaces, they are in a particularly weak position vis-à-vis their employers. Also, it is difficult for them to form trade unions, which provides a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of labour rights violations. Irregular pay of wages, hours of work and lack of rest periods are among the most frequent problems. Also, domestic workers as children, which raises issues regarding the international prohibition of harmful child labour (see for example the position paper on the proposed ILO Convention by Human Rights Watch). 

While certain ILO conventions are already applicable to domestic workers, the new Convention would further clarify and specify the legal status and rights that domestic workers are to enjoy. Furthermore, it could provide guidance as to which measures ought to be taken with a view to actually enforcing the labour standards of domestic workers.

According to the International Labour Office, such a Convention would ideally contain binding standards while providing for enough flexibility to take into account the specific situations in the various ILO member states. Also, the Convention would be accompanied by a recommendation containing more specific explanatory guidance on this topic (see the preparatory report of the ILO on “Decent Work for Domestic Workers”). The members of the ILO are to discuss the adoption of the Convention (and the Recommendation) at the International Labour Conference 2010. The ILO office has already proposed to accompany the implementation of the proposed Convention and Recommendation with specific technical assistance. This would be instrumental to ensure that the protection these instruments aim to provide translates into real benefits for the workers concerned.

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