ILO to agree on landmark treaty on domestic workers

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The Philippines will be among a number of states next week urging the International Labour Organization to pass a landmark treatty offering protection to domestic workers across the world.

ILO member states are expected to adopt proposals designed to offer protection to an estimated 52.6 million worldwide.

It would ensure domestic workers enjoyed conditions "not less favourable" than other workers, requiring governments to ensure they understood their rights, preferably through written contracts.

The document also offers domestic workers a full rest day every week, and prevents employers requiring domestic workers to remain with an employer's household during their annual leave or rest days.

The convention, which is expected to be adopted next week during the 100th annual conference of the ILO, will come into effect upon the ratification of two countries.

ILO chief Juan Somavia told negotiators meeting in Geneva this week that if it was adopted, they would be "making ILO history."

Lourdes Trasmonte, chief negotiator for the Philippines, underlined the importance of the convention to the country given the millions of Filipinos working abroad as domestic workers.

"It is a universal right for every worker to be given respect, protection, the right to privacy, the right to health and safety," she told AFP.

ILO data, which is a compilation of national statistics, indicate that there are at least 52.6 million domestic workers in 2010.

But there are reasons to believe that the true number, concealed by undercounting among some states, could lie close to 100 million, the agency added.

Despite the large numbers, domestic workers are still among the most exploited and abused.

Many are required to work irregular and long hours for low pay and are given insufficient rest. Live-in domestic workers in particular, can be on call at all times of the day.

They are also largely excluded from social protection such as maternity benefits and social security.

Several delegates noted that it was high time for these workers to obtain protection and expressed confidence that the treaty would be adopted, given the broad support this year.

Trasmonte noted: "Countries that are not engaged last year, are engaged this year."

These include Gulf countries, activists said.

While there is no official breakdown for the number of domestic workers in the Gulf, the ILO estimates that there are 2.1 million domestic workers in the Middle East, making up around 5.6 percent of total employment in the region.

The United Arab Emirates, which is speaking for the Gulf countries, declined to comment before the end of negotiations.

Nevertheless, activists said that the Gulf countries have been active in the negotiations, indicating that they are taking a serious look at the treaty.

South Africa's chief negotiator Virgil Seafield, who was also speaking on behalf of the African group, noted that "the critical mass is there."

"I don't think there is a lot of apprehension. I see a lot of support," he said.

Nevertheless, joining the convention is only the first step. Countries would not have to implement the treaty until ratification. Others can also opt not to sign up, which could reduce the bite of the treaty.

But supporters of the convention and activists believe that the strength of treaty lies in that it sets a standard. Peer pressure could also lend influence.

"There's an understanding that major sending countries... are in support. They will want the protection that will be provided when dealing with other countries," Seafield told AFP.

Human Rights Watch's Nisha Varia also noted that over the past decade, there had been a "shift in awareness."

"There's starting to be an international consensus that domestic workers are workers, that they do deserve protection under labour law like other workers.

"Countries that don't keep up with that are going to feel that pressure, that they are not keeping up with contemporary standards," she said.

© 2011 AFP

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