Hundreds of domestic workers rallied in front of the Kenya Parliament in Nairobi today, lobbying legislators to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The effort is part of a larger campaign to improve wages and working conditions for the country’s domestic workers by the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) as well as to help build momentum for a global movement for domestic workers.
“It is amazing. It shows [the] power of the domestic workers in Kenya,” said Africa Regional Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), Vicky Kanyoka.
Convention 189 established the first global standards for the more than 50 million 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 23 countries. Of these, only two African countries have ratified the convention: South Africa and Mauritius.
Domestic workers are some of the world’s most vulnerable workers, comprising a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment. In Kenya, domestic workers have suffered pay below minimum wage, long working hours, physical abuse, discrimination and lack of job security. More recently, domestic workers migrating to jobs in the Middle East from the Mombasa area, in an effort to escape poverty wages at home, have been preyed upon by unscrupulous labor brokers and employers.
KUDHEIHA—a Solidarity Center partner—has stepped up its political advocacy on behalf of domestic workers with the support of the Solidarity Center in recent years. Legislative changes favorable to domestic workers included an increase in their minimum wage in 2015 as well as an increase last year in the minimum wage from 10,955 to 12,825.72 Kenyan shillings ($108 to $126) per month.
KUDHEIHA’s current push for government ratification of Convention 189 is an effort to secure additional recognition, rights and standards for Kenyan domestic workers working inside and outside the country.
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 and Sri Lanka.
Workers around the world experienced rising physical violence and threats over the last year—and in more countries–according to this year’s ITUC Global Rights Index. The report documents attacks on union members in 59 countries and shows that 60 percent of countries are now excluding entire groups of workers from labor law.
“We need to look no further than these shocking figures to understand why economic inequality is the highest in modern history. Working people are being denied the basic rights through which they can organize and collectively bargain for a fair share,” said Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation general secretary.
The report’s key findings include:
- Millions of people are still enslaved under the kefala system in the Gulf, making the Middle East and North Africa once again the worst region for treatment of workers
- Unionists were murdered in 11 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela
- The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased from 52 to 59 countries, including Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Indonesia and Ukraine
- Eighty-four countries exclude entire categories of workers from labor law
- More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike
- More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining
- Out of 139 countries surveyed, 50 deny or restrict free speech and freedom of assembly.
The report ranks the 10 worst countries for worker rights in 2017 as Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Qatar, South Korea, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Read the report: ITUC Global Rights Index 2017
Download the ITUC Global Rights Index map
Download the ITUC Global Rights Index Infographic – Violation of workers’ rights
Download the ITUC Global Rights Index Infographic – Ten worst countries in the world for working people
After 22 days of peaceful protests, workers, unions and other civil society groups in Buenaventura, the country’s largest port city, won a landmark agreement with the Colombian government. On June 6, the government agreed to invest more than $500 million in the long-neglected city over the next decade. United Nations officials, senators and local politicians witnessed the signing of the agreement. A bill securing the funding is scheduled to be submitted to Congress on July 20.
Following the agreement, the elected strike committee, representing a coalition of 66 civil society organizations in Buenaventura, suspended the civic strike for one month to assess the government’s compliance with its pledge. In the lead up to the July 20 deadline, local groups will continue to negotiate decent employment and improved water services, sanitation, healthcare, education, housing and other social initiatives.
On May 16, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets demanding peace and dignity after years of neglect by leaders in Bogota, the capital. Many of the port city’s 400,000 predominately Afro-Colombian inhabitants live in abject poverty without access to proper hospitals, schools, roads and other basic services.
Buenaventura’s thriving port accounts for 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade and in 2014, generated $2 billion in tax revenue. Only 3 percent of that revenue is reinvested in the city.
Many residents work in the port without the protection of Colombia’s labor code. The Port Workers’ Union (Unión Portuaria) is pushing to incorporate them into a collective bargaining agreement that would establish direct, indefinite employment contracts that include a living wage and provisions for health and pension benefits.
Beginning on the fourth day of demonstrations, the peaceful protests were disrupted by a national police force crackdown, with 41 reported arrests, dozens injured and at least one death. Human rights groups condemned the government’s decision to deploy riot police against peaceful demonstrations—in a city deprived even of a local, publicly-funded security service.
Solange Ambroise sells vegetables in the San Cristobal Municipal Market. Credit: Solidarity Center/Ricardo Rojas
Rarely do governments admit failing their citizens. However, on Friday the 193-member states of the United Nations did just that when they voted to rectify their failure to uphold the rights of workers and to ensure decent working conditions for more than half of the world’s working women and men.
By voting for an International Labor Organization (ILO) recommendation, The Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy, the large majority of the world’s governments has done more than just pledge to provide the basics for the world most vulnerable workers—those struggling to make ends meet in the informal economy—they have begun the essential process of strengthening society by promoting worker rights.
Street vendors, home-based workers, domestic workers and day-laborers usually work “off the grid” and outside a country’s regulations and labor laws. They join subcontracted, temporary and part-time workers who subsist on the fringes of the formal economy. These jobs typically pay low wages, perpetuate worker and human rights violations, provide limited or no social benefits, and offer little access to union representation. For most of these workers, survival trumps active engagement in society’s daily undertakings.
An estimated 1.5 billion, or approximately 60 percent of the world’s workers, toil in the informal economy, according to the ILO. In some developing countries, informal jobs comprise up to 90 percent of available work, and most workers take these unstable jobs out of necessity, not by choice.
Women, migrant workers and the young are disproportionately represented in the informal economy, and often the most exploited. Their situation is exacerbated because they may be barred from joining unions, which could offer support through collective bargaining on wages and working conditions, or because unions have not been able to reach them due to the isolated and changeable nature of their job.
Informalization of work fuels global income inequality, poverty and abuse. For example, at age 22, N. Naga Durga Bhavani left her small village in India for Bahrain, where she hoped a job as a domestic worker would help pay for her young daughter’s heart surgery. But when she arrived, after paying labor recruiters the equivalent of nearly two months’ wages, she says her passport and papers were confiscated, and she was forced to work long hours, trapped in an abusive environment where she was beaten, her fingers broken. After she escaped, the Indian Embassy could not help her leave the country because she had no identification.
And the drag on society does not end with the desperate plight of workers like Bhavani. Businesses employing workers in standard employer-employee relationships find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they compete against those chasing short-term profits by not hiring full-time workers, paying taxes and benefits, or complying with regulations and labor law. Companies that provide financial and business services miss huge swaths of potential clients whose income leaves them too poor to enter the shop door and unable to access credit.
The effects on government are even more profound. The loss of tax revenue on huge percentages of GDP in many countries is only one edge of the sword. Because workers in the informal economy usually hang from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, they are more likely to need social safety nets—the very nets their jobs do not support through tax revenue.
Friday’s vote is significant because governments, worker representatives and employer representatives, who usually operate with very different agendas, publicly acknowledged the imperative of providing all workers with rights at work, social benefits and the ability to join a union. Their acknowledgement that the current system does not work—not for working people, not for governments and not for the businesses that serve them—is an important step toward bringing millions of workers into decent jobs that comply with labor codes and allow workers to be stronger members of their society. All of us should applaud the 193 nations for not choosing failure.