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Five years ago the International Labour Organisation adopted the Domestic Workers Convention, which set out to improve the working conditions of domestic workers.
While domestic workers and activists worked and continue to work for the creation and implementation of the Convention, their commitment has yet to be met by high-level political support. Only 24 countries have ratified the Convention. For many of the estimated 53 million domestic workers in the world, of whom 50 million are women, the terms laid out in the Convention are far away from their daily reality. Underpay, unpaid overtime, inadequate living conditions, overwork, sexual abuse and harassment, and a lack of access to remedies, are just some of the problems experience.
Domestic workers face a range of barriers, from the social, to the legal and practical to organising and negotiating for their rights. Domestic workers have struggled to have their work seen as ‘real work’, are ignored by national labour laws and are denied the space and freedom to bargain collectively. As domestic work takes place largely in the private sphere, and by individual, often migrant women who are likely to be isolated by language, social and cultural differences in their host countries, the traditional industrial relations model of labour inspections, collective organising and bargaining is a poor fit.
GAATW’s members and partners, who work to promote migrant workers’ rights, provide space for migrant domestic workers to meet, articulate and discuss their problems, and strengthen their networks. In 2013 we documented how migrant domestic workers in Qatar and Lebanon find support and strength in each other. At a recent workshop in Jordan, domestic workers from Bangladesh identified flaws in the migration system. They called out their embassies for failing to support them in exploitative situations, and they want recruitment agencies to take more responsibility for their welfare once in employment. The also expressed their frustration with the kafala system, which has long been criticised by academics and activists alike.
In the Philippines our partners Kaagapay in Mindanao, and BATIS Center for Women in Manila are providing support to potential and returnee migrant women.
Kaagapay are reducing vulnerability to exploitation by improving access to information and providing pre-employment training for migrant women workers. They have identified a range of barriers and systemic factors influencing migrant women’s rights and decisions to migrate, such as the age ban, which denies women under 23 the right to migrate, armed conflict and climate change. Both BATIS Center and Kaagapay are working to train returnee migrant women as community leaders and to promote organising as a key to healing and recovery for returnees who have suffered injustices, and to help ensure the safe migration of others.
In spite of the immense challenges, and often weak political commitment to their rights, domestic workers are organising, and in doing so are both overcoming their daily problems and challenging deeply held prejudices about the value of what is traditionally ‘women’s work’. At the same time, society needs to recognise the value that domestic workers bring to the economy, and challenge the dominant economic model’s reliance on women’s unpaid and under-paid domestic labour.