Decent work, decent life for domestic workers | Daily News


International Domestic Workers’ Day falls today

Decent work, decent life for domestic workers

Born in a family of poor rural workers in the North-Western province, Ramani began life as a domestic worker when she was mere 12 years old. Unable to balance work and school, she left school when she was in Grade 4. At work, Ramani would be beaten and taunted whenever a mistake was made. She did not have time to play like other kids or have any entertainment. 

Ramani for years worked within closed doors, beyond the reach of personal policies, employment contracts, proper rest or wages. At the age of 16, Ramani sought greener pastures in the Middle East. At the behest of a sub-agent, Ramani’s parents agreed to send her daughter as a domestic aide to a country in the Middle East. The agent undertook to do everything including making a forged passport as Ramani was under the stipulated minimum age for foreign employment. Although she got a higher wage, things did not change much for Ramani. After her first entry, Ramani went abroad several times. She often went from her employer’s home to safe houses and the embassy and back to her home country due to physical and psychological abuses, and lack of safe and decent working conditions. But back home there were always agent’s eager to help her get back to a foreign country to work as a domestic hand.

Lack of job opportunities, poverty and social stigma left no choice for her and the cycle continued. Ramani’s story is similar to that of millions of domestic workers worldwide, mostly women, the invisible workforce who often work without basic rights, safety, proper wages, rest or social security.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), currently, there are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide. One in every 25 women workers worldwide is a domestic worker. In Sri Lanka, the number of local domestic workers is unclear and the research undertaken in this regard is minimal. 

When it comes to migrant workers, the ILO estimates there are around 164 million migrant workers worldwide and among them 68 million are women. Migrant domestic workers represent 7.7 percent all migrant workers out of which 73.4 (8.5 million) are women. According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), around 1.6 million Sri Lankans work abroad of whom 62 percent are men and 38 percent are women. Among the women, 42 percent have migrated as domestic workers.

 Domestic workers comprise a significant part of the Sri Lankan workforce similar to the situation globally and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers. They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the scope of labour legislation.

But the landmark treaty for domestic workers by the ILO could help the world’s “invisible workforce” to finally come out of the shadows. The International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention (ILO C189) came into force on September 5, 2013, extending basic labour rights to domestic workers around the globe.

The Convention will ensure the provision of the same basic labour rights to workers who care for families and households as those available to other workers. This includes a minimum wage, clear terms and conditions of employment, daily and weekly (at least 24-hours) rest time, restrictions on in-kind payments, and respect for the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Both the migrant and domestic workers come under this convention. As of now, 29 countries have ratified the C189 but in Asia which hosts the biggest number of domestic workers, only one country (the Philippines) has ratified C189.

The following highlights what C189 is, how ratification helps to ensure rights and minimum standards for domestic workers and the efforts taken by Sri Lanka to ratify ILO’s C189.

Development of ILO Convention 189 and Recommendation 201

According to the ILO, although the first resolution concerning the conditions of employment of domestic workers was adopted as early as 1948, the road towards the adoption of Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and Recommendation (No. 201) dates back to 2008, when the ILO Governing Body decided to include the setting of standards on decent work for domestic workers in the agenda of the 2010 ILO Conference. The first step was to map the state of law and practice, concerning domestic workers across the world: the information compiled was sent to the Member States in 2009. The comments submitted were published and presented at the discussions in the 2010 Conference. 

Following the 2010 Conference, the Domestic Workers Committee produced a report containing the proposed conclusions of the discussions. It provided the first draft for a convention and a recommendation. Once again, constituents were invited to comment, and their feedback was synthesized in another report. In June 2011, the ILO delegates adopted by an overwhelming majority the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and Recommendation (No. 201), a historical set of international standards aimed at improving the working conditions of tens of millions of domestic workers worldwide. Recommendation No. 201 adopted by the International Labour Conference of 2011, supplements Convention No. 189. Unlike the Convention, Recommendation No. 201 is not open for ratification. The Recommendation provides practical guidance concerning possible legal and other measures to implement the rights and principles stated in the Convention.

How is the Convention implemented?

The convention may be implemented by extending or adapting existing laws and regulations or other measures, or by developing new and specific measures for domestic workers. Some of the measures required under the convention may be taken progressively. The provisions of the convention are to be implemented in consultation with the representative workers and employer organizations.

What is Convention No. 189 about?

The Convention No. 189 offers specific protection to domestic workers. It lays down basic rights and principles, and requires States to take a series of measures with a view to making decent work a reality for domestic workers. When a country ratifies a Convention, its government formally makes a commitment to implement all the obligations provided in the Convention, and to report periodically to the ILO on the measures taken in this regard.

What is domestic work, who is a domestic worker and who is the employer of a domestic worker?

The Convention No. 189 defines domestic work as “work performed in or for a household or households”. This work may include tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, or elderly or sick members of a family, gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, even taking care of household pets.

Under the Convention, a domestic worker is “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship”. A domestic worker may work on full-time or part-time basis; may be employed by a single household or by multiple employers. A domestic worker may be working in a country of which she/he is not a national. All domestic workers are covered by C189, although countries may decide to exclude some categories, under strict conditions.

The employer of a domestic worker may be a member of the household for which the work is performed, or an agency or enterprise that employs domestic workers and makes them available to households.

What minimum standards does C189 set out?

a)  Basic rights – Promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers according to Article 3 of the convention. Respect and protection of fundamental principles and rights at work such as freedom of association, right to collective bargaining, elimination of all forms of forced labour; abolition of child labour; and elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation and effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.

b) A written employment contract

c) Basic working conditions including hours of work and remuneration - Should ensure equal treatment between domestic workers and other workers generally with respect to normal hours of work. Rest, and annual paid leave. A minimum wage.

d) Workplace safety and health - Right to safe and healthy working environment.

e) Social security - Social security protection, including maternity benefits. Conditions that are not less favourable than those applicable to workers generally.

f) The power to make complaints against employers.

g) Standards concerning migrant domestic workers - A written contract that is enforceable in the country of employment. Clear conditions under which domestic workers are entitled to repatriation at the end of their employment (Article 8). Cooperation among sending and receiving countries to ensure the effective application of the provisions of the Convention to migrant workers. Ensure protection from abusive practices by employment agencies.

h) Ensure employment agencies are regulated.

i) Standards concerning child domestic workers - Requirement to set a minimum age for entry into domestic work. Domestic workers aged 15 years but less than 18 years – their work should not deprive them of compulsory education, or interfere with their opportunities for further education or vocational training.

j) Standards concerning live-in workers - Ensure decent living conditions, freedom to reach agreement with their employers, right to keep their identity and travel documents in their possession.

k) Dispute settlements, complaints, enforcement - effective access to the court, tribunals or other dispute settlement mechanisms, including accessible complaint mechanisms.

Which countries have ratified the C189 so far?

According to the ILO, 29 countries have ratified the C189 so far. In Asia where there is an estimated 21,467,000 million domestic workers, only the Philippines so far has ratified. The countries that have ratified C189 are Madagascar, Sweden, Peru, Granada, Brazil, Guinea, Jamaica, Finland, the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Chile, Belgium, Panama, Portugal, Costa Rica, Argentina, Columbia, Ireland, Switzerland, South Africa, Guyana, Germany, Ecuador, Italy, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, the Philippines and Mauritius.

 Why is it important for Sri Lanka to ratify C189?

According to the Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Skills Development, Employment and Labor Relations, Yamuna Perera, the  ILO C189 is highly important for Sri Lanka in two aspects, to ensure the rights and decent working conditions for local domestic workers and migrant domestic workers. Perera who is responsible for policy guidance and handling programme implementation for labour migration says, “Sri Lanka is a country of origin for labour migrants and until recent years, female domestic workers (34 percent) formed a majority when it came to total overseas departures for employment. Due to the nature of their work, many domestic workers work in isolation with little or no inspection or monitoring of their working conditions and vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour. Ratification and implementation of C189 ensure these abuses will end and domestic workers will enjoy equal rights as other workers. ” 

Meanwhile, Sujeewa Lal Dahanayake, Attorney-at-Law and National Coordinator of Lawyers Beyond Borders (Sri Lanka), states that even though Sri Lanka has a strong legal framework to ensure employment security and the welfare of those in work, domestic work is excluded from most of the labour laws. While labour migration has opened new employment opportunities for women, the majority of females from Sri Lanka migrate as domestic workers.

According to Dahanayake, C189 sets up some powerful rights for domestic workers and promotes decent work. Ratification of C189 is the best way to get countries to commit to doing what the convention says. Member countries that have ratified C189 must make laws, regulations and agreements to make it practical.

“As an example, the execution of Sri Lankan migrant worker Rizana Nafeek in January 2013 at the age of 17 after being sentenced by a court in Saudi Arabia is a tragedy which shocked the world. It clearly demonstrates the dangers faced by female domestic workers who are unprotected by the laws in the host country.”

Dahanayake, a strong advocate of C189 says provisions in the C189 will advance gender equality as well. The ILO C189 has specific provisions for protection of migrant domestic workers in the recruitment process. It institutionalizes the principle of no recruitment fees charged from workers. The ILO C189 also recommends countries to cooperate at bilateral, regional and global levels for the protection of domestic workers, especially in matters concerning the prevention of forced labour and trafficking in persons. Also this is an important convention to ensure the rights and employment conditions of local domestic workers. When implemented, the ILO C189 will ensure local domestic workers will enjoy similar rights to ones enjoyed by other workers.

According to Yamuna Perera, the Sri Lankan government has taken a number of steps to protect the rights of domestic sector migrant workers who are more vulnerable among Sri Lankan migrant workers.

Steps taken by the government to protect the rights of domestic sector migrant workers

  •  Regularize the recruitment process.
  •  Empower prospective migrant workers by conducting “safe migration programmes” at rural level
  •  Conduct pre-departure training for prospective migrant workers.
  •  Mandatory registration with the SLBFE to protect rights of migrant workers and provide welfare services to migrant workers and families.
  •  Making compulsory the employment contract approved by authorities.
  •   A mass media campaign to provide necessary information to the public. 

Steps taken or are being taken by Sri Lanka to ratify C189

1. Conduct a gap analysis on C189: which areas of the labour laws are in line with C189, and which fall short? At the request of the Ministry of Labour, ILO commissioned this research for an evidence based study to formalize domestic work in Sri Lanka. This was conducted by the Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR) which provides four options for regulation:

(a) Enact a separate and distinct law governing domestic workers in Sri Lanka.

(b) Ensure legal recognition by integrating domestic workers into existing labour laws.

(c) Introduce a Standard Agreement between employers and employees.

(d) Create a State-led formal system of registration of domestic workers and ensure, by Circular, the terms and conditions governing such domestic workers.

The key recommendation of this study was to enact a separate and distinct law to govern domestic workers in Sri Lanka.

The special law should include explicit recognition of rights, regulations for recruitment of domestic workers and registration, a minimum age, provisions for contracts, social security, health insurance, rest periods, and leave, help for abused domestic workers, complaint mechanisms, access to legal counsel and legal aid, and the right to association.

2. In March 2018, the Cabinet of Ministers had given approval for the ‘Sri Lanka National Action Plan for the promotion and protection of human rights’ which included rights of domestic workers as well. The Cabinet also approved the inclusion of ‘domestic worker’ in the definition of a ‘worker’ in the Industrial Disputes Act and the Employees’ Provident Fund and Employees’ Trust Fund Acts.

Amendments to the Minimum Wage Act 2016 and Employees Provident Fund Act 1958 are being taken (With the Legal Draftsman) and once it is approved, action will be taken to ratify the C189.

According to Perera, if everything goes according to the plan, Sri Lanka may well ratify the ILO C189 within a short period.

(This writer engaged in several discussions organized by local experts on the subject and participated in a recent forum in Dhaka, Bangladesh attended by Asian Parliamentarians, Civil Society members and the Media to discuss the path towards ratifying the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189)

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