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Global: Reversing a History of Exclusion through International Labour Law

by IDWFED published Feb 01, 2011 12:00 AM
Contributors: Claire Hobden/Global Labour Column
Claire Hobden, a junior project officer at the ILO, addressed the necessary legal protections sought by domestic workers, and the value of the standard-setting process.


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Although domestic workers provide crucial care services that make all other work possible, their labour too often is not seen as real work meriting legal protections. This view has resulted in 100 million women and girls left unprotected by national labour law in nearly half the world’s countries. Until recently, domestic workers were excluded even from international labour laws, which is symbolic of the slow evolution of social perceptions of women’s work generally and of domestic work in particular. Reducing the exploitation of domestic workers will therefore require both normative change to reverse the history of exclusion, and social change to actualize their rights. An international labour standard on the rights of domestic workers is essential to achieve both.

Whether it takes the shape of a binding convention or just a recommendation, an international labour standard for domestic workers is not a stand-alone answer. First, it would provide a minimum standard that purports to provide universal coverage; it constitutes a basis on which campaigns can seek more rights. Second, it gains effect only through implementation, monitoring, enforcement, and cultural change. Its use domestically as a campaign tool can increase its usefulness as a labour standard. If won, a binding convention is possibly the most effective way of holding states accountable by providing a baseline standard against which the promotion and protection of the rights of domestic workers can be monitored and enforced.

This article argues first that an international labour standard would extend necessary protections to domestic workers. Second, the standard-setting process provides a compelling campaign tool to mobilize domestic workers and raise awareness among states and civil society. Domestic workers are then empowered through their participation in drafting international law, and their input helps ensure the relevance of the standard. By virtue of their participation, domestic workers exercise their civil and political rights, gaining traction and increasing dialogue with their respective governments at the national level. Finally, their engagement provides an accountability mechanism, as international labour standards provide a role for civil society actors in the implementation of their rights.


The legislative exclusion of domestic workers is arguably one of the more egregious oversights in labour history. Even when arguing that domestic work is the product of global inequality, and that only structural change can transform the industry, we cannot deny that the culture of disrespect and undervaluing of domestic work is supported by legislative silence at the state and international levels. Despite provisions in existing human rights instruments and ILO conventions that address some of their concerns, domestic workers have been left out of labour legislation in about 40 per cent of countries (ILO, 2010) and excluded from many ILO conventions via a flexibility clause that allows governments to exclude certain limited categories of workers upon ratification of a convention. Such exclusionary practices underline the need to establish domestic worker rights through an international instrument that comprehensively addresses their specific concerns.

The lack of protection demands an international effort to identify good practices and establish a clear human rights framework. When there are no standards, the normative belief is that anything goes, and that there are no repercussions for abuse. Human rights reports denouncing abuses such as unpaid wages, long working hours without rest, insufficient provision of often inadequate food, substandard accommodation, forced labour, confinement, and emotional and sexual abuse provide ample evidence that such practice is the norm, not the exception (Human Rights Watch, 2006). Establishing fair labour standards makes a statement to both governments and societies about the value of labour, setting a minimum benchmark for employers and governments.

Source: Claire Hobden/Global Labour Column

Story Type: News

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