On June 16 International Domestic Workers Day, the Solidarity Center salutes women union leaders around the world who are urging governments and employers to recognize care as a public good and a human right, and to provide care workers, including migrant workers, with the same basic rights available to other workers—including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation and clear information on the terms and conditions of employment. 

“Domestic workers are vital in the care economy, providing crucial support to families and communities. They deserve fair treatment, including fair pay, safe working conditions and benefits. Recognizing and valuing their work is essential for creating a more equitable society,” says Conchita “Suzanne” Baldago, founding chairperson of Sandigan Bahrain, a multinational, multi-sectoral organization representing Bahrain’s migrant workers.

With International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions 149, 156, 189 and 190 providing a normative framework for governments and employers, women workers at the ILO are urging a holistic framework to implement rights outlined by these conventions and affirm care worker rights. 

With global labor partners the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Solidarity Center assisted partner domestic worker and other care economy unions and associations with preparations for the ILO’s 112th Session of the International Labor Conference (ILC). Activities included in-person discussions to survey care and domestic workers around the world regarding the development and enforcement of a new care work definition that correctly includes domestic workers as care workers

An in-person workshop surveying Gulf region domestic worker associations affiliated with Solidarity Center partner Integrated Community Center (ICC) found that although care workers, most of whom in the Gulf are migrant workers, benefit from some legal provisions—such as in Bahrain and Kuwait, from fixed contracts, paid leave and health insurance—the kafala system systematically interferes to drag back any formal economic conditions. The Integrated Community Center (ICC) includes 14 Kuwait-based migrant worker associations and many more affiliate associations across MENA, Africa and Asia. Migrant workers account for an average of 70 percent of the employed population in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and more than 95 percent of private sector workers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“We need changes in domestic workers’ situations to level up their dignity,” says Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association community leader Jinki Escuadro about her participation in the ICC’s in-person survey.

The ICC is reporting that labor and domestic work laws in the Gulf are inadequate, including Kuwait’s Domestic Worker Law (2015) and Bahrain’s Private Sector Labor Law (2012)—in no small part due to lack of enforcement. 

Under the kafala system, employers in the region—including household heads, governments and private business owners—continue illegal practices such as confiscating and withholding migrant care workers’ passports, engaging in wage theft and enforcing non-contractual working hours, among other practices. The kafala, an employer-driven sponsorship system in Arabian Gulf countries, ties migrant workers to their employers, effectively denying migrant workers fundamental rights and fueling abuse. 

The Gulf is routinely at the center of controversy regarding migrant domestic worker complaints of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Estimates by the International Trade Union Confederation indicate that more than 2.1 million women employed in households across the region are at risk of exploitation. Despite recent reforms, two-thirds of Kuwait’s population is comprised of migrant workers who remain vulnerable to abuse that includes physical and sexual violence, reports Human Rights Watch. 

ILO Convention 189 established the first global standards for domestic workers more than a decade ago to protect the 75.6 million domestic workers around the world, most of whom are women, many of whom are migrants and children. But there is still much work to be done, say unions, including recognition of the care work performed by domestic workers as one of the cornerstones of the construction of fair, inclusive and resilient societies based on gender equity and decent work. 

Carmen Britez, president of the IDWF, the first and only global union federation founded and led by women of color from the Global South

“To the workers: keep fighting, keep advocating for the recognition of our rights as domestic workers,’ said Carmen Britez, president of the IDWF, the first and only global union federation founded and led by women of color from the Global South. Credit: Solidarity Center / Alexis de Simone

Carmen Britez, president of the IDWF,  the first and only global union federation founded and led by women of color from the Global South, issued a message to the workers, governments and employers at the ILC: “To the workers: keep fighting, keep advocating for the recognition of our rights as domestic workers.  To the governments: you have responsibilities to uphold to workers and to our societies, to domestic workers, because we have been fighting for our labor rights over many years. And to the employers I say, at a minimum, have a little bit of heart, think about where you come from. Who is taking care of your children? Who is taking care of your grandparents? And where do you come from? From a woman! So take note of this, be sensitized to it, open your hearts and look at us as we are: workers!”

Solidarity Center Americas Regional Program Deputy Director Alexis De Simone says, “Marginalization of poor women workers–especially women of color and migrant workers–is not an accident. It is a deliberately built power structure. And because it was deliberately built by people, it can be deliberately dismantled by people.”

The ILO estimates that by 2030, almost 2 billion children under the age of 15 and 200 million older persons will need care, representing a combined increase over less than a decade of 200 million people who need care. At least 756 million people globally—75 percent of whom are women—are paid domestic care workers who provide direct and indirect care services in a private household. Even considering only those employed directly by households, domestic workers account for 25 percent of all care workers, making up 89 percent of paid home health care workers and 94 percent of paid child care workers.  

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