Were they a nation, they would be bigger than South Africa and a bit smaller than France.
According to the latest ILO report, there are 52.6 million domestic workers across the world, but this is just a conservative estimate and does not include child labourers, who number about 7.4 million.
In fact, according to the trade unions and NGOs, the actual figure is much higher.
Since too many are not even registered as worker, the true figure could even reach 100 million.
However, the study reveals a growing trend of domestic work, which has increased by more than 19 million over the last 18 years, when the global estimate was just about 33 million.
The reason for this increase in demand for domestic work relates mainly to ageing populations, to the growing participation of women in the labour force (without the adequate distribution of care work between men and women), low quality public services and irregular working hours for young couples.
Despite the global socio-economic relevance of their work, in particular with regard to migrant labour and remittances, domestic workers are usually treated less favourably than other categories of workers.
They experience some of the worst labour conditions such as poor wages, excessive working hours, lack of social protections, harassment and abuse.
If low wages in the sector are linked to perceived low skills required, there is a clear undervaluation of domestic work in society putting workers in a weak bargaining position with employers.
In addition, the possibility to form trade unions and the right to collective bargaining in the sector has been almost non-existent so far.
“Exploitation can partly be attributed to gaps in national labour legislation and often reflects discrimination along the lines of sex, race and caste,” says the ILO.
That is why a new international labour law instrument was adopted by the ILO last year.
Convention 189 aims to guarantee fair treatment for domestic workers, just like any other worker, including freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and a decent minimum wage.
The convention further provides for a weekly day off, monthly payment and access to social security including maternity pay.
The result of the adoption of a specific convention that is binding for the government that ratifies it is even more significant when you consider that domestic servants do not represent a strong professional category linked to a defined economic sector with a tradition of trade union representation.
In fact, according to the slogan of a recent campaign, domestic servants ‘work like everybody else, work like nobody else.’
So far, three countries have ratified convention 189: Mauritius, Uruguay, Philippines, and four have completed the ratification process: Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Italy.
It is worth mentioning the Italy was the first European country to commit itself to the respect of the new labour standard and the first ‘receiving’ country, given the fact the most of domestic workers are migrants.
More ratifications are expected in 2013, from countries like Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Costa Rica, Colombia, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Senegal and Australia.
Some other countries adopted national legislation on domestic work in 2012, like Chile, Spain, Brazil, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Malawi.
There has been a clear improvement over the last year and this also due to the ‘12by12’ campaign, an initiative held in more than 85 countries by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in partnership with the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN) and other global union federations and human rights organisations.
The ILO notion of a ‘domestic worker’ includes gardeners, drivers and butlers, who are men in most cases, but there is no doubt that this remains a highly feminised sector, in which over 80 per cent of the workers are women. For example, one working woman in five is a domestic in the Middle East and one in six in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This is why a key concern of the ILO is the right to maternity protection, especially in areas that have still to implement the principle of equal treatment, like the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
In those countries there is even discrimination in remuneration according to gender and nationality. In Malaysia, for example, Filipino domestic servants receive higher salaries than Indonesians, while in Jordan they are better paid than Sri Lankans and Ethiopians.
Therefore the urgent need for prompt ratification of Convention 189 that should ensure at least fair and equal treatment.