New international rules on domestic workers – will they make a difference?

June 28, 2011 6 By admin

It’s probably just because I’m getting more right wing in my old age, but The Economist seems to be getting better. This week’s issue maidscovers a new ILO Convention on domestic workers. A quick skim of Google News suggests it was the only magazine from the mainstream UK media to do so.

“Without them many an economy would grind to a halt: the global army of between 50m and 100m domestic workers, most of them women and children. Yet tucked away in kitchens and nurseries, mainly in the Middle East and Asia, their wages often go unpaid, they are rarely granted any time off, and many face physical and sexual abuse.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) hopes to change all this with a new treaty adopted on June 16th at its annual conference. The Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers has been three years in the making. Its goal is to limit working hours, guarantee weekly days off, ensure a minimum wage and protect domestic workers from violent employers.

Only a few delegates—government officials as well as national representatives of employers and workers—voted against (Swaziland and a couple of employer groups, including the Confederation of British Industry), but there were some notable abstentions. Predictably, they included Malaysia. A series of abuse cases led Indonesia to ban its citizens from going to work there as maids from 2009 until May this year. More surprisingly, the British government, too, preferred not to vote either way. It said the treaty would be too onerous, particularly the parts regulating working hours and health and safety.”

domestic workersApart from the apparently shameful performance of the Brits, why does this matter? What difference does a convention make? I was pretty sceptical until I saw their impact on the ground – like the indigenous activist in Bolivia who told me that ‘ILO Convention 169 [on indigenous and tribal peoples] changed my life – when I read it, the indigenous part of me woke up’. An unusual conversation, true, but conventions can act as a kind of normative nudge, capturing where international sentiment has got to on a particular issue, pushing it further into domestic politics and moving the debate on a bit (not too far, or the convention won’t get passed or ratified).

I saw this osmotic effect on both laws and attitudes when researching for a book, ‘Hidden Lives: Voices of Children in Latin America and the Caribbean’ in the 1990s, when the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was rapidly trickling down into new child protection legislation across the region, and a new awareness of child rights. Let’s hope the same thing happens on domestic workers – a particularly complex situation of isolation and invisibility that can become very nasty indeed, for example in the case of the restavek child domestics in Haiti.

But I’m sure many such conventions have no impact at all – anyone seen any analysis of why some get traction and others don’t?