Unlike the majority of workers, domestic workers — such as housekeepers and paid caregivers of children and the elderly — remain invisible, laboring in the private setting of the home. This situation can lead to exploitative labor conditions.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency that promotes opportunities for workers to obtain decent and productive work, recently agreed to a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, establishing international standards to improve working conditions for as many as 100 million domestic workers worldwide, the majority of whom are women and young girls.
“Although delegates from the United States played a leading role in rallying support for the convention and advocating strong protections on behalf of domestic workers, it will take a Herculean effort to achieve decent work for domestic workers in the United States,” says Peggie Smith, JD, employment law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
“First, the United States must be willing to ratify the convention. Second, assuming ratification, a long road must be traversed in order to ensure that national labor laws meet the level of protection mandated by the convention’s provisions.
“At present, none of the major pieces of federal labor legislation in the United States comply with the standards in the convention.”
Key elements of the convention require governments to accord domestic workers substantive labor rights that are equivalent to those extended to other workers, including overtime compensation, minimum-wage coverage, regular rest periods, social security, coverage under safety and health provisions, and respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
“Domestic workers are routinely subjected to harsh working conditions, including sexual harassment and other forms of physical abuse, exposure to health and safety hazards, inadequate accommodations for live-in work, and excessive working hours,” Smith says.
Smith is the co-author of a treatise on employment law and a leading scholar in the regulation of care work that occurs both inside and outside the home.
“Despite its importance, domestic work is poorly paid and offers workers few if any benefits, such as access to health care or maternity leave,” she says.
Smith says the new ILO standards provide a useful framework for member states, including the United States, to make meaningful strides toward achieving decent work for domestic workers.
“Policymakers must be continually reminded of the value of domestic work and constantly pressed to regulate such work in a manner that acknowledges domestic workers as real workers who deserve respect and inclusion in the scope of general workplace protections,” she says.
“Domestic work is essential. It serves as a vital source of employment for low-income women and provides an indispensable service for countless families. Absent the availability of domestic work, many families would be left in a crisis.”