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Working conditions

Momentum grows for domestic workers legislation

A constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for domestic workers in Brazil comes into force on 2 April. Several countries have now passed legislation protecting domestic workers – evidence that the momentum sparked by the ILO Convention on domestic workers is growing.

News | 02 April 2013
GENEVA (ILO News) – Brazil’s six and a half million domestic workers are now covered by a new law giving them equal rights with other workers.

The constitutional amendment, which was passed unanimously in the Brazilian Senate at the end of March, establishes 16 new rights for domestic workers, such as the right to overtime pay, a maximum eight hour working day and 44 hour working week.

Some of the changes will come into force on 2 April 2013 and others will have to be regularized, including a new provision whereby employers will pay the equivalent of eight per cent of their monthly salary into a fund which will be made available upon compulsory redundancy, death and other contingencies.

Domestic workers’ trade unions in Brazil have been pushing for reforms in the law for many years. It is the latest in a series of legislative changes in several countries following the ILO’s adoption, in June 2011, of the ILO Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201 concerning decent work for domestic workers

Eliminating abuses

Domestic workers are often exploited and can be subject to abuse and violence. The convention aims to eliminate such abuses and ensure decent working conditions and pay for domestic workers worldwide.

Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Equality Department, welcomed the vote in the Brazilian Senate, which was passed unanimously at the end of March after being approved in the lower house.

“With the passing of this law, so culminates Brazil’s process of recognizing the dignity and value of domestic work and domestic workers, who are to a large extent black women - a process which began in 1998 when, for the first time, the Constitution included a number of important labour guarantees for these workers. Today's Senate decision is one additional step towards narrowing the historical divide between the richest and "whiter" stratum of society and the poorest and "darker" lower end of the social ladder,” Tomei said.

It is particularly significant given the dramatic rise in the numbers of domestic workers in Brazil over the last few years – from 5.1 million to 6.6 million between 1995 and 2011. 17 per cent of all jobs for women are in the domestic work sector. Latin America is one of the world’s fastest growing regions in the domestic work sector.

Facts and figures on domestic workers
Worldwide By region
  • 52.6 million worldwide
  • 83 per cent are women
  • 29.9 per cent are excluded from national labour legislation
  • 45 per cent have no entitlement to weekly rest periods/paid annual leave
  • More than a third of women domestic workers have no maternity protection
  • Asia and the Pacific: 21.4 million
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 19.6 million
  • Africa: 5.2 million
  • Developed countries: 3.6 million
  • Middle East: 2.1 million

Global momentum

Argentina also passed a bill in March, which limits working hours and ensures paid annual and maternity leave for domestic workers. The Indian Parliament included domestic workers in legislation to eradicate sexual harassment at work, which was passed last February.

Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore. Legislative reforms have also begun in Finland, Namibia, Chile and the United States, among others.

So far four countries have ratified ILO Convention 189 – Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius and Italy. Several others have initiated the process of ratification, including South Africa, Costa Rica and Germany.

The European Commission is also pressing EU countries to implement the ILO Convention and has called for safeguards to protect young domestic workers.

According to an ILO study from January 2013, entitled Domestic Workers Across the World, at least 52 million people around the world – mainly women – are employed as domestic workers. At the time of the research, only ten per cent were covered by general labour legislation to the same extent as other workers. More than one quarter were completely excluded from national labour legislation.

ILO legal specialist on working conditions, Martin Oelz, said that the signs are encouraging: “The Convention and Recommendation on domestic workers have effectively started to play their role as catalysts for change. Giving social dialogue a central place, these global minimum standards now serve as a starting point for devising new polices in a growing number of countries.”

ILO Convention 189
Domestic workers who care for families and households must have the same basic labour rights as other workers. These rights include:
  • Reasonable working hours,
  • Weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours,
  • A limit on in-kind payment,
  • Clear information on terms and conditions of employment,
  • Respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.