Domestic Workers ‘Level Up Their Dignity’: Advancing Rights for Care Workers

Domestic Workers ‘Level Up Their Dignity’: Advancing Rights for Care Workers

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.  

Ukraine: Domestic Workers Win As President Signs New Law

Ukraine: Domestic Workers Win As President Signs New Law

Soon after organizing to advocate for formal recognition as workers and protections at work, domestic workers in Ukraine won a significant victory when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a new law on May 22 regulating domestic work and affording new protections to domestic workers.

Significantly, the law recognizes and defines domestic work and domestic workers, and affords them all labor rights and guarantees, including normal working hours, overtime compensation, daily and weekly rest periods, and paid annual leave. It guarantees domestic workers’ right to a safe and healthy work environment and makes employers responsible for ensuring safe working conditions. The law also establishes an employment contract as the primary means of formalizing the working relationship and sets a minimum age for domestic workers.

Last year, the first survey to evaluate the working conditions of Ukraine’s domestic workers found that lacking contracts and formal recognition left most respondents vulnerable to low pay, wage theft, confusion about employment status, exclusion from the country’s pension system and minimal capacity to exercise their right to freedom of association. Most reported working without formal terms and conditions of employment.

“This is an important development for Ukraine’s human rights protection and Euro-integration efforts,” said Tristan Masat, Solidarity Center Ukraine country program director. “Domestic and care workers are among the most isolated and vulnerable groups in the economy, and with so many Ukrainians working in-household jobs in the EU, it’s valuable to see the government take a strong and progressive position on the rights of these workers in Ukraine.” 

Tetiana Lauhina, founder of the Union of Home Staff

While the new law allows domestic workers and employers to codify the terms of employment in a contract and protects domestic workers under Ukraine’s labor laws, much work remains to enforce the law and secure better protections for domestic workers.

Tetiana Lauhina, founder of the Union of Home Staff, said the law has been a long time in coming. “We have been waiting for this law since 2015. It’s a strong step in the right direction.  Next, we’d like to see the International Labor Organization’s Convention 189 on domestic workers ratified by Ukraine. Its ratification and implementation is a major goal for the Union of Home Staff.”

Ukraine: Domestic Workers Win As President Signs New Law

Ukraine: Domestic Workers Organize for Recognition, Dignity

In a first for Ukraine, in-home childcare workers including nannies and babysitters organized and then elected domestic worker Tetiana Lauhina to head their new labor organization, Union of Home Staff (UHS).

“[My colleagues] are amazingly hard-working and well-educated. I want all of them to be recognized as workers and officially protected,” says Lauhina in a video interview.

The Union of Home Staff (UHS), formed by 17 domestic worker activists, will vigorously advocate with Ukraine’s lawmakers and government to ensure protections for domestic workers and formalization as workers under the country’s labor law.

As an outgrowth of nongovernmental organization Union of Home Staff (UHS), the new union will continue to use its allied organization’s name and acronym, UHS, expanding its services as an information hub and community center, including for its 1,800 Facebook members. 

Ukraine’s first nationwide survey of domestic workers last year found that working without contracts and formal recognition had left most survey respondents victims of low pay, wage theft, confusion about employment status, exclusion from the country’s pension system and minimal capacity to exercise their right to freedom of association. And, without legal formalization as workers, Ukraine’s domestic workers lack access to care rights and services for themselves and their families—including maternity and child benefits, long-term care services and disability compensation for workers who die or are injured in their employers’ homes.

“[The domestic worker] is not secure and she is nobody for the state,” says Lauhina.

Because women account for three-quarters of the 75.6 million domestic workers globally, domestic worker rights are key to the achievement of gender equality. On International Women’s Day this year, the ILO issued a new policy brief urging governments and employers’ organizations to ensure that domestic workers have access to labor rights and social protections.

Nongovernmental organization UHS was formed in 2019 with support from Ukraine labor rights nongovernmental organization Labor Initiatives (LI) and the Solidarity Center to raise awareness about labor rights challenges for Ukraine’s care economy workers and support the country’s legislative efforts to formalize domestic work.

Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers

Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers
Myrtle Witbooi, a fierce advocate of domestic worker rights who recently passed away, is remembered in this Solidarity Center Podcast episode by Solidarity Center Domestic Worker Global Lead Alexis De Simone. We also hear from Myrtle herself, as she accepted the AFL-CIO’s Human Rights award on behalf of the International Domestic Worker Federation, which she helped form and led. 
“Her deep conviction that when women, when the working poor, when 
women of color, when workers in the Global South, when union sisters and brothers decide to join forces, decide that they are in it together, there is no option but victory,” says  says De Simone.
“That is so much of Myrtle’s legacy.”
Download Recent Episodes!
This episode is a re-broadcast from the podcast, Labor History Today, produced by the Metro Washington Labor Council.
Fierce and Beloved Labor Leader Myrtle Witbooi Passes Away

Fierce and Beloved Labor Leader Myrtle Witbooi Passes Away

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Fierce and Beloved Labor Leader Myrtle Witbooi Passes Away


The global labor movement lost a bright light and a pioneering leader on January 16 when Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), and president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), passed away after a long and valiant battle with cancer. 

Myrtle Witbooi accepts ALF-CIO George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award for IDWF.

Myrtle began her career in the 1960s as a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa. A newspaper article about domestic workers moved her to write a letter to the editor. Myrtle was just 18 when, with the help of a local journalist, she convened the first meeting of domestic workers in Cape Town in 1965. 

“As I entered, I saw about 350 workers all looking at me, and I said to myself, ‘Oh Lord, what now?’” Myrtle recalled in an interview

“And I went up to the stage and I said, ‘Good evening. I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves because nobody is going to do anything for us.’ And they all started clapping and said, ‘You are going to lead us.’” 

It was the beginning of a lifelong fight to secure rights and protections for domestic workers. 

At that time, domestic workers in South Africa were not allowed to move freely and needed identification to enter the White neighborhoods where they worked. 

We needed an ID to identify that we were allowed to come to the White area to work. But we could go to church,” Myrtle said. The workers formed a committee in 1979 because they could not form a union. Their church meetings served as cover for committee meetings, even after the government banned all labor organizations in 1986 for fear they were ANC-affiliated.

As general secretary of SADSAWU, Myrtle fought for a national minimum wage increase and compensation for domestic workers injured on the job. In 2011, she helped lead an international coalition of domestic workers to secure passage of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C 189), which ensured domestic workers the same basic rights as other workers. The convention marked the unprecedented involvement of informal women workers in setting ILO standards.

Myrtle became the first chair of the International Domestic Workers’ Network—and when the network formalized as a federation, Myrtle was elected the first president of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, the only global union founded and led by women of color.

Myrtle was often recognized for her work on behalf of domestic workers. In 2013, she accepted the AFL-CIO’s George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, which recognizes international leaders and organizations who have overcome significant hurdles in the fight for human rights. In 2015, she was awarded the Fairness Award, which honors outstanding leaders dedicated to bringing economic justice, fairness and equality to poor and marginalized communities.

Myrtle was serving her second term as IDWF president when she passed. Under her leadership, the federation expanded to 87 affiliates in 67 countries, representing 670,000 domestic workers. Their “nothing about us without us” motto that achieved ILO Convention 189 served as the clear model for the fight to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work, resulting in the passage of ILO Convention 190 in 2019—an effort led by affected workers, largely women workers and informal workers.

Upon news of her passing, tributes came in from domestic workers around the world, sharing stories of how Myrtle inspired courage among workers who have been made invisible by employers and governments to raise their voices and stand firm together in their demands for dignity and respect.

“Myrtle was bold, had a clear moral vision and was relentless in building up alliances to see a vision of equal rights for domestic workers to fruition. Myrtle’s legacy of courage, justice and sisterhood will live on for generations,” said Alexis De Simone, global lead for domestic worker rights at the Solidarity Center.

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