The British government and the CBI spoke out against an International Labour Organization convention supporting the rights of domestic workers.
Sam Gurney is a TUC policy officer and the UK’s workers’ delegate at the ILO conference
The world’s 50 million domestic workers are amongst the most invisible and vulnerable section of the global workforce. They are often isolated from other workers, particularly dependent on their individual employer, and hidden from the wider community.
Domestic workers are often migrant workers and young women. They often suffer low pay, long hours, sexual harassment and occasionally frightening brutality. Conditions akin to slavery are not unknown. Such exploitation and abuse happens in developing and developed countries including the UK.
One reason for this state of affairs is that domestic workers are often ignored, sometimes specifically excluded, from the legislation that protects most workers. But despite this, unions are challenging the idea that their isolation makes them impossible to organise – as the South African Domestic Workers Union established under apartheid, the inspiring Nepali Independent Domestic Workers Union, and in the UK, Justice 4 Domestic Workers (part of Unite), demonstrate.
Adopting the convention is only the beginning although it is the culmination of a long campaign by domestic workers, trade unions and NGOs. The ILO’s 183 member states need to ratify and implement it. But it was a triumph nonetheless that governments, employers and unions from around the world managed over a fortnight last year and a further fortnight this year, plus all the discussions in between, to agree a text, voted for this morning by 396 delegates, with only 16 against and 63 abstentions.
The convention covers written contracts, minimum wages and payment in cash, working time and rest breaks, health and safety, employment and maternity rights and so on. It provides for domestic workers to be treated the same as any other.
In the debate yesterday, employers’ representatives from the Netherlands, New Zealand and the USA expressed their satisfaction that compromise on all sides had made agreement possible. Trade unionists paid tribute to the extraordinary domestic workers – like Marissa Begonia from the TUC – who had themselves taken part in the negotiations. Some of the speakers at the conference came from the domestic workers unions of Indonesia, Sweden and Uruguay. Governments committed themselves to the admittedly difficult task of making the aspirations of the convention a reality.
Toni Moore of the Barbados Workers Union spoke for many when she said that the convention would “give faces to those workers who have been invisible for so long”.
So it was with a mixture of anger and disbelief that delegates listened to just two contrary voices – the representatives of the British government and of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), calling for abstention and opposition respectively.
The government cried crocodile tears over the bizarre image of health and safety commissars raiding the homes of confused elderly people. And the CBI adopted a purely parochial approach, voting against due to a spurious reading of the implications of the convention for the Working Time Directive in the UK. Their speeches were in stark contrast to the pragmatism and compassion shown by speakers from all other backgrounds: extreme, doctrinaire and ultimately – given the resounding vote – totally pointless.
The campaign for UK ratification of the treaty starts now. Justice 4 Domestic Workers will be joined by the TUC, Anti-Slavery International, Christian Aid and Oxfam, and more will be welcome.