A worldwide treaty to protect the rights of domestic workers went into effect on September 5, but thus far, only a handful of countries have signed on to it. Notably, the United States is not among them; perhaps no surprise, given the way the country has been dragging its heels when it comes to providing basic protections to the maids, housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers who keep it humming. In this case, though, the entire international community is watching.
This particular agreement was developed by the International Labor Organization, which coordinates nations, worker welfare groups and NGOs worldwide to protect the rights and welfare of workers. The goal of the ILO is to promote both economic and social progress, ensuring that workers get fair treatment while also keeping economies strong. It develops recommendations for best practices (like abolishing child labor) and works through the UN to coordinate international efforts.
An agreement on domestic worker rights is a big deal, with an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide engaged in some form of domestic work. This work comes with a number of dangers; in addition to the risk of occupational injuries from bending, lifting and long hours, people are also at risk of exploitation. Many domestic workers are undocumented, which leaves them afraid to report abuse to the authorities, and they may be underpaid, physically or sexually assaulted by employers, or kept in conditions approaching slavery. In some cases, domestic workers are slaves.
Thus, the ILO and organizations around the world are understandably concerned about the welfare of domestic workers, and eager to achieve better working conditions and safer environments for them. Which makes it extremely disappointing that only nine countries have signed on to the treaty, with very few Western heavyweights backing the agreement to give it some teeth. If the Domestic Workers Convention, Number 189 doesn’t get support from more Western countries like the United States and Great Britain, it’s likely to die in the water, instead of building on the momentum 2012 brought to domestic worker rights.
Meanwhile in the United States, a paltry two states have pushed through protections for domestic workers: New York and Hawaii. These trailblazers in the field could be the spearhead of a movement to protect workers across the country, or they could be a flash in the pan; this treaty presents a perfect opportunity to pressure state governments and the national government into taking action on this issue. State governors like Gerry Brown of California have resisted signing domestic worker bills of rights into law, often with questionable justification like worries for low-income disabled people who rely on in-home support.
It’s time to acknowledge that domestic workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation due to the nature of their work and the profile of people who tend to be involved in domestic work: primarily immigrant women, often with a limited understanding of the limited legal protections they do have, sometimes also with limited English skills. And it’s time to note that these workers deserve to work in safety and comfort, rather than needing to fear effectively legally-sanctified abuse.
The ILO is on the right track with an international treaty to pressure governments around the globe to put a stop to the abuse of domestic workers within their borders. Now it’s time to start leaning on those governments to compel them to sign.
Photo: Domestic worker rights organizer Ai-jen Poo speaks at the National Press Club, Institute for Policy Studies.
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