The unstoppable domestic workers’ movement: powerful, resilient and determined until all are free!

Today, domestic workers, trade unionists, women’s rights activists and human rights defenders are celebrating the anniversary of a historical achievement: the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention 189 (C189) and Recommendation 201. Adopted on 16 June 2011, the Convention ensures that workers who care for families and households, including millions of migrant domestic workers, are protected by the same basic labour rights available to other workers, putting an end to a long history of exploitation and abuse perpetuated by their systematic exclusion from national labour laws.

There are tens of millions of domestic workers around the world, most of whom are women, many belonging to Indigenous, racialised, migrant and rural communities. The recognition of their valuable work as work and the knowledge that protections for this historically disadvantaged group are now enshrined in international law was a milestone in trade union history.

As Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), so famously put it at the time: “Our dream became a reality, and we are free – slaves no more, but workers.”

Over the last ten years, C189 has delivered change for millions of domestic workers. With a global campaign to ensure the ratification of C189 (initially in 12 countries) – headed by the IDWF, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and bolstered by the vital support of a broad-based alliance which included human rights advocates and the feminist movement – rights were won in dozens of countries. Advocacy campaigns were launched, policymakers were lobbied, and tripartite negotiations were initiated. From inclusion in labour law to the right to a minimum wage, social protection, an eight-hour working day and one day off a week, the working lives of millions of domestic workers has been transformed since Uruguay became the first country to ratify C189 in June 2012. To date, 32 countries have ratified C189 and at least 50 countries have improved legal protections for domestic workers.

Since the adoption of C189 in 2011, the domestic workers movement has gone from strength to strength. United globally and locally, the IDWF held its founding congress in Uruguay in 2013, thus marking another historical achievement: for the first time, a global union organisation was formed and entirely led by women from across equity-seeking groups, women from the poorest segments of society. Since then, its collective bargaining power has grown with 67 affiliates from 54 countries, representing over 600,000 domestic workers.

The fight for justice continues

Their fight for justice and an end to their exploitation continues and will not stop until all 67 million domestic workers worldwide enjoy rights, protections, and a safe and healthy working environment. Even where C189 has been ratified, further action is required to ensure its effective implementation. And the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant setback: according to ILO estimates, in June 2020 a staggering 72 per cent of domestic workers were deeply affected by the pandemic.

Many lost their income since employers terminated their employment, forced them to take unpaid leave, or, where employment was maintained, many did not receive their wages. Since the vast majority of domestic workers work informally, income loss was rampant since they miss out on the right to access social protection. Many domestic workers were also left out from Covid-19 response packages.

This exclusion extends to the millions of migrant domestic workers, who were already the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The pandemic has put them at even greater risk by being locked inside because of to the various lockdown measures, having to work without personal protective equipment (PPE) when providing care to family members, and having no access to health care. This has left some domestic workers unable to afford even the most basic necessities, to buy food or pay their rent.

The IDWF responded on all fronts, mobilising support through the creation of a Solidarity Fund to provide support to at least 150,000 domestic workers for their most critical needs. The IDWF is also collecting funds for migrant domestic workers to provide them with PPE, food, hygiene essentials, medical tests and shelter.

In the midst of the pandemic, affiliated unions in dozens of countries stepped up their advocacy work. In Panama, for example, domestic workers conducted health and safety training, including the right to vaccination, with the Ministry of Labour, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the ILO. In Malaysia, domestic workers won the right to social protection when the government reformed their laws earlier this month, thanks to the advocacy of domestic worker unions. Globally, LGBT+ domestic workers have been organising for rights and respect, and in December 2020, Namibian unions celebrated the fruit of years of campaigning work when the government ratified C189 and C190, another landmark ILO Convention, this time tackling violence and harassment in the world of work.

Beyond C189, the IDWF continues to drive change. It recently joined forces with the ITUC and various global union federations to campaign for the widespread ratification of the aforementioned Violence and Harassment Convention. It has also been pushing for social protection for a human-centred world of work at the ILO. And it has teamed up with the ITUC, UNI Global Union, Education International, Public Services International and WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) to push for decent work for all care workers and increased investment in equitable access to public care services, while mobilising for the next Global Action Day on Care on 29 October 2021.

In a moving short documentary, a co-production by the IDWF, Human Rights Watch, WIEGO and the ITUC, IDWF domestic worker leaders from across the world celebrate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of C189. Their power and resilience reveal the strength of an unstoppable movement, determined to reach the day that all domestic workers are free.