At least 52 million people around the world – mainly women -are employed as domestic workers, according to the first research of its kind conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

They account for 7.5 per cent of women’s wage employment worldwide and a far greater share in some regions, particularly Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Between the mid-1990s and 2010, there was an increase of more than 19 million domestic workers worldwide. Many migrate to other countries to find work. It is likely that the figures contained in the report underestimate the true numbers of domestic workers worldwide, which may in reality be tens of millions more.

The figures also exclude child domestic workers below the age of 15 that are not included in the surveys used by the report. Their number was estimated by the ILO at 7.4 million in 2008.

Despite the size of the sector, many domestic workers experience poor working conditions and insufficient legal protection.

“Domestic workers are frequently expected to work longer hours than other workers and in many countries do not have the same rights to weekly rest that are enjoyed by other workers. Combined with the lack of rights, the extreme dependency on an employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” said Sandra Polaski, ILO Deputy Director-General.

Implementing international standards

The report, Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection, follows the adoption, in June 2011, of a new ILO Convention and Recommendation on domestic work.

These new international standards aim to ensure decent working conditions and pay for domestic workers worldwide. The Convention so far has been ratified by three countries. Three other countries have completed national ratification procedures and many others have initiated them.

The findings of the research will act as a benchmark against which progress in extending legal protection will be measured.
Vulnerable

Only ten per cent of all domestic workers are covered by general labour legislation to the same extent as other workers. More than one quarter are completely excluded from national labour legislation.

More than half of all domestic workers have no limitation on their weekly normal hours under national law, and approximately 45 per cent have no entitlement to weekly rest periods. Just over half of all domestic workers are entitled to a minimum wage equivalent to that of other workers.

Lack of legal protection increases domestic workers’ vulnerability and makes it difficult for them to seek remedies. As a result, they are often paid less than workers in comparable occupations and work longer hours.

The precarious legal status of migrant domestic workers and their lack of knowledge of the local language and laws, make them especially vulnerable to abusive practices, such as physical and sexual violence, psychological abuse, non-payment of wages, debt bondage and abusive living and working conditions.

Live-in domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation since they are often paid a flat weekly or monthly rate irrespective of hours worked. In practice it means that a domestic worker is available whenever needed.

“The large disparities between wages and working conditions of domestic workers compared to other workers in the same country underline the need for action at the national level by governments, employers and workers to improve the working lives of these vulnerable but hard-working individuals,” stressed Polaski.