In Ukraine, domestic workers formed the country’s first organization for domestic workers, including childcare workers, this week. The organization’s formation is part of a growing global movement to assert the rights of this vast, mostly hidden and primarily female workforce, as laid out in International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
“Information and legal support for domestic workers is important,” said the founder of the organization, Layhina Tatiana, because domestic workers do not yet have formal recognition in the country. Lacking formal standing under current labor law, the Domestic Employees’ Union must operate in the country as a non-governmental organization (NGO), rather than as a formal union.
The NGO’s stated mission is to raise the visibility of domestic workers’ labor; improve their wages, work conditions and benefits; encourage the government to implement all provisions of Convention 189; provide legal services in employer disputes; and represent the rights of Ukraine’s domestic workers nationally and internationally.
“Childcare and domestic workers in Ukraine deserve the same legal recognition and rights as all other workers in the country,” said Solidarity Center’s Europe/Central Asia Director, Rudy Porter.
An estimated 67.1 million people, mostly women, provide paid domestic service around the world—both in their own countries and as migrants workers—where they clean, cook and care for children and the elderly. Domestic workers are among the most exploited and abused in the world, often working up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages far below the minimum wage. Working behind closed doors in private homes, most have few legal protections and are vulnerable to exploitation as well as verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
Convention 189 established the first global standard for domestic workers worldwide, addressing wages, working conditions, benefits, labor brokers and child labor. Although the convention went into force in 2013, it has been ratified by only 28 countries. Since ratification, domestic workers in many countries began leading efforts to encourage their own governments to recognize domestic workers rights, including recognition and implementation of Convention 189.
The Solidarity Center works with domestic workers and other organizations that represent them around the world, including in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.
Workers and their unions are starting discussions this week on a global standard that would address violence and harassment in the world of work. They join representatives of employers and governments at the June 10–20 International Labor Conference (ILC) in Geneva, where they are championing an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention with a strong focus on gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment.
“We cannot deny that we have gender-based violence at work, so if we have an ILO convention, we can address it,” says Phyo Sandar So, assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM), a Solidarity Center partner. She says a global convention would enable union activists and their allies in countries like Myanmar to advocate for more protective laws and ensure their enforcement.
“We do not have a strong domestic law for violence at workplace,” she says. “When we make a policy for gender-based violence at work, we need to have international standards to make our own legislation, see how other countries implement it to make a law.” Sandar will be among workers at the ILC, where her CTUM union sisters will be at the negotiating table.
Among women union activists who have championed an end to GBV at work (from top, left): Tourya Lahrech; Alejandra Ancheita; Lily Gomes and Oretha Tarnue; May Joy Guarizo Salapare, Phobsuk Gasing and Myrtle Witbooi; Gertrude Mtsweni; and Saida Bentahar. Credit: Solidarity Center
Final negotiations on an ILO convention covering gender-based violence at work comes after more than a decade of work by women in the global labor movement. Women like Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner.
“Women were going through serious sexual harassment at the workplace without knowing what to do about it. There were no gender champions who would campaign against GBV as compared to now that we are seriously campaigning against GBV at workplace,” she said.
In 2015, as a result of these efforts, the ILO agreed to craft a standard on ending violence and harassment against men and women in the world of work, and workers have been at the table helping shape it ever since. Their years-long effort has been supported by the International Trade Union Confederation, Solidarity Center and unions and organizations around the world.
Workers, Unions: Educating, Mobilizing for a GBV Standard
Members of COSATU were among union members across South Africa taking part in #TotalShutdown day last fall to protest violence against women. Credit: COSATU
Leading up to the final discussions happening now in Geneva, Solidarity Center partners urged their unions, governments and employers to publicly support a binding ILO convention on violence and harassment at work that covers gender-based violence.
For instance, the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC), together with other civil society organizations, helped push the adoption of a law that includes a definition of sexual harassment at the workplace, and designated the Public Defenders’ office as a state body responsible for the enforcement of new legislation.
“Trade unions in the Eastern European region have applied multiple approaches to secure support for the convention,” says Paata Beltadze, Solidarity Center regional gender specialist in Tbilisi.
“Unions increased awareness about the standard-setting procedures and importance of the convention to members; built alliances among civil society and human rights groups at the local and international levels; and organized regional workshop to share experiences, strategies and developing plans for a strong regional networking in the future,” says Beltadze.
Sritee Akter from the Garment Workers Solidarity Federation in Bangladesh, signs a letter to the prime minister urging government support of an ILO convention on gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Istiak Inam
In Bangladesh, trade union federations and worker organizations representing garment workers and domestic workers sent a message to the government urging the administration to support the convention. Nine Solidarity Center partner organizations signed a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, making the case for government support for the convention and recommendations.
Omamo, a representative on the gender commission of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), and Gertrude Mtsweni, gender coordinator for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), worked with OATUU’s gender commission to develop an effective message to urge their governments to ratify the convention after it is passed by the United Nations. Countries are not covered by a UN convention unless their governments ratify it and indicate they are committed to applying its provisions in national law and practice, and reporting on its application at regular intervals. COSATU activists took part in #TotalShutdown rallies last fall to protest violence against women.
These are just a sample of the education, mobilization and advocacy workers and their unions have undertaken in the weeks and months before the ILC.
“Unions provide a means by which working people most impacted by GBV can voice their needs and experiences. In doing so, unions have shown that when front-line workers have a say, solutions addressing deeply rooted problems like GBV effectively address the concerns for those most affected,” she says.
Two just-released informal surveys union members conducted among their co-workers at garment factories in Cambodia and Indonesia:
Solidarity Center’s video on gender-based violence at work is now available in Sinhala and Tamil.
The two-minute video explains the forms of gender-based violence at work, which include bullying, verbal abuse and stalking, systemic gendered imbalance between employers and workers that enables employers to get away with unsafe working conditions and other worker abuses.
Workers, employers and government officials currently are debating a proposed International Labor Organization (ILO) convention (regulation) that would address violence and harassment at work, and the video ends with a call to action tojoin the campaign.
Legislation requiring written contracts, paid vacation and annual bonuses for domestic workers passed Mexico’s House and Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The landmark law, which also prohibits employers from hiring domestic workers younger than age 15, requires employers provide at least a day-and-a-half off each week and defined rest periods.
The law comes after domestic workers across Mexico began organizing nearly two decades ago to push for their rights on the job, first forming a Support and Training Center for Domestic Workers (CACEH) and in 2015, launching the country’s first domestic workers’ union, SINACTRAHO. Both CACEH and SINACTRAHO are Solidarity Center partners.
“After 18 years of fighting through the Support and Training Center for Domestic Workers and SINACTRAHO, some of our demands are reflected,” SINACTRAHO said Monday in a Tweet after the Senate approved the bill. “We know that we must continue working, but today we are sure that the voice and demands of domestic workers have been heard.”
Domestic workers are rarely covered by countries’ labor laws, with domestic work often viewed as not “real” work. Yet more than 67.1 million domestic workers, predominately women, care for others’ families and homes invisibly and in private, often required to live on the premises of their employer. Away from the public eye, they frequently are subject to abuse.
Domestic Workers’ Global Fight for Decent Work
In Mexico and around the world, domestic workers are joining together to champion their rights to safe work, decent wages and fair treatment on the job. Domestic workers in Mexico took part in the global campaign spearheaded by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and the IUF, the global union federation, to successfully push for the 2011 ratification of the International Labor Organization’s historic Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights. The Domestic Workers Convention went into effect in September 2013 and has been ratified by more than 20 countries.
The obscurity in which domestic workers labor and their daily struggles for respect and fairness were illuminated in this year’s Academy Award-winning film, Roma. The film’s depiction of live-in maid Cleo, working for a family in crisis in turbulent 1970s Mexico City as her own life takes a devastating turn, has widened space for domestic workers to push for their rights and recognition.
Marcelina Bautista, a former domestic worker who founded the Center for Support and Training of Domestic Workers (CACEH) and served as SINACTRAHO co-president, has screened the film widely. She discusses with audiences the real-life challenges Mexican domestic workers confront—and how similar they are to those Cleo faces in the movie.
For Bautista and the 2 million domestic workers across Mexico, the far-reaching legislation defining domestic workers’ rights is a big step after a long struggle.
“We can only hope it will improve the lives of so many women not only on paper but in reality,” Bautista told the New York Times.
As a migrant mine worker from Swaziland, Mduduzi Thabethe says he has fewer workplace rights than his South African co-workers. Although all mine workers pay the same amount into the health fund, migrant workers get inferior care and pensions are rare.
“If you are a citizen of South Africa, you see you are building your country and you have something, but we have nothing.”
Although media and policymakers focus on African migrants to Europe, some 80 percent of African migrant workers remain on the continent.
Thabethe’s union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, is among those working to improve conditions for migrant workers.
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