United States Must Take Steps to Protect Domestic Workers

Aug. 4, 2011
For housekeepers and child care givers who work within private homes, the nature of their work often shields them from outside view. According to an employment law expert, this means domestic workers may face an increased risk of working in unsafe, abusive or otherwise exploitative conditions – and the United States must take steps to protect these workers.

“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,” said Peggie Smith, JD, an employment law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “Despite its importance, domestic work is poorly paid and offers workers few if any benefits, such as access to health care or maternity leave.”

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has taken steps to help protect this vulnerable working population. On June 16, ILO agreed to a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and adopted a set of international standards aimed at improving working conditions for domestic workers worldwide. The majority of the 100 million domestic workers across the globe are women and young girls.

“Bringing the domestic workers into the fold of our values is a strong move, for them and for all workers who aspire to decent work, but it also has strong implications for migration and of course for gender equality,” said Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General.

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.

Smith applauded the ILO’s progress and said the United States must rally support and advocate protections for domestic employees, which she said could take “a Herculean effort.” First, the United States must first be willing to ratify the convention. Following ratification, must work to ensure that national labor laws meet the level of protection mandated by the convention’s provisions. This could be a long road, Smith said, adding that currently, “none of the major pieces of federal labor legislation in the United States comply with the standards in the convention.”

“Domestic work is essential,” Smith explained. “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.”

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