The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights became effective this week after having been ratified by a critical mass of nations—though many nations, including the United States, are unlikely to ratify the convention or to abide by its policy recommendations. The ILO convention holds that domestic workers—mostly immigrant women who toil in private homes as nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers—are entitled to a minimum wage, overtime, and protection from harassment and abuse.
Even if many nations may not care to ratify or give any credence to the ILO convention right now, it is going into effect at a critical time of organizing, and some progress, for
labor rights activists in the United Sates and abroad. Labor Day here in the United States arrived on the heels of one of the largest strikes in U.S. history, with New York City workers demanding a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $15 per hour. Meanwhile, domestic workers in the Indian state of Maharashtra for the first time secured the right to earn a minimum wage. These events reveal how the struggle to value workers’ labor and time is global and relevant throughout the world. It also reveals how the movement to recognize domestic labor is now gaining traction globally—and how the failure of many countries to recognize domestic labor under the law is rooted in complex, but common, histories of racism, classism, and sexism.
While only nine countries have actually ratified the ILO convention, Convention 189 has already become a model standard activists leverage in fighting for protections such as the minimum wage, overtime pay, and protection against abuse and harassment. Health insurance is also within the realm of possibility, revealed by the fact that some Indian domestic workers also secured health benefits earlier this year.
And establishing a minimum wage—an important recommendation of the ILO—was a critical step for Indian workers, especially since more than 40 percent of domestic workers globally are not legally entitled to a minimum wage. According to one Indian news source, “Domestic workers will soon come under the ambit of the minimum wages act, which will ensure that they take home between Rs. 6,500 and Rs. 10,000 a month for 8 hours of work. The monthly minimum wages from a house will be calculated based either on the number of hours spent, or the volume of work.”
amounts to $97.50-$150 dollars per month—still a very small amount by cost of living standards in the state of Maharashtra.
Writer and scholar Michelle Chen noted earlier this year at In These Times that innovative domestic worker organizing is happening around the world, in part as a result of the ILO convention, which was a collaborative effort and victory of both U.S. and global domestic worker-activists. Chen highlights progress in the Latin American countries of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Argentina. Brazil recently enacted an 8-hour work day and overtime pay, while Argentinian domestic workers secured limits on the hours they work during the week, and Colombia
developed a union for domestic workers.
Chen notes why protections for domestic workers overwhelmingly affect Black women in Latin American countries like Argentina. “Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy,” she writes. “The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.”
Racism, classism, and sexism are all deeply relevant to the battle for domestic workers’ rights globally and in the United States, as domestic work in most countries is dominated by women of color and/or immigrant women. Attorneys Marci Seville and Hina Shah wrote in their essay, “Domestic Worker Organizing: Building a Contemporary Movement for Dignity and Power,” about the relevance of slavery to U.S. domestic work today:
The low status of domestic labor was firmly intertwined with both the status of those who predominately served and the history of slavery. African-American women dominated the domestic services both during and after slavery in the South. They soon came to supply domestic labor in northern cities as well, as African-Americans migrated in overwhelming numbers during the Great Migration. During this period, “black women … formed a servant and laundress class, as no white group had ever done before.” By the 1940s, African-American women held close to half of domestic service jobs, nationally.
And entrenched racism and classism can enable abysmal treatment of domestic workers without legal consequence to employers. In May 2012, Indian news outlets reported the merciless torture of a 14-year-old domestic worker by her software engineer employers in Noida, in the National Capital Region of Delhi. The young girl said she was regularly beaten and not allowed to leave her employers’ household. So beyond being deprived decent wages, domestic workers in India and throughout the world sometimes face very real physical danger.
The caste system in India can make conditions for domestic employees even more dire.
“The Absence of State Law: Domestic Workers in India,” a 2011 essay in the Canadian Journal of Women and Law, noted that “[t]he gender, caste, and other social demographics of domestic workers reinforce this invisibility and devaluation, the low wages, and the lack of legal protections.”
These trends reveal how labor movements globally are interconnected movements that can inspire and complement one another. Particularly in the domestic workers’ movement, activists from the United States are making a significant contribution to activism globally, and vice versa. Strategies such as establishing a minimum wage, as well as building unions and organizing employers, are found in the United States and abroad. While governments may be slow to the party, the progress workers are persistently working toward is of global significance.