53 million domestic workers worldwide ‘need protection’

There are an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide – the majority of whom are women and girls, and many of whom are migrants, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, urging protection for these valuable but vulnerable people.

While the number of domestic workers is believed to have increased in the past years in many parts of Africa and Asia due to higher levels of poverty and unemployment, in South Africa however, there has been a considerable decrease of 5% in the past decade.

The number, which reached around 1.21 million in 2003 has fallen to about 1.15 million in 2012, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). SAIRR researcher Georgina Alexander was quoted as saying that the decrease was significant because the country’s middle class had increased over the same period.

Domestic work, described by many people as a ‘cheap’ and ‘lowly’ profession, is nonetheless cherished by those exercise it.

But domestic workers continue to brave all sorts of ill-treatment, including physical and emotional abuse, sexual harassment, racism and discrimination.

All over the world, even in the so-called civilised societies such as the European Union, US and Australia, domestic workers are singing the same song: overwork, low wages and insults.

“Even though domestic workers provide critical services that families depend on – cooking, cleaning, and child care – they have faced discrimination and marginalisation for generations. That should end,” Myrtle Witbooi, chair of the International Domestic Workers Network, said.

“This array of human rights abuses against domestic workers underlines the urgency for better laws, stronger enforcement, and a dramatic shift in how domestic work is valued,” Nisha Varia, HRW senior women’s rights researcher, said.

“Addressing and preventing these abuses will affect millions of lives.”

The Domestic Workers Convention treaty, established in 2011 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), only entered into force on 5 September 2013.

The treaty lays down the first global standards for domestic work, HRW said, adding that under the new convention, domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as those available to other workers.

Only 10 countries have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention: Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Italy, Bolivia, Paraguay, South Africa, Guyana, and Germany, HRW reports.

“Governments should bring national laws into compliance with the Domestic Workers Convention and ensure effective enforcement of those laws,” the New York-based rights organisation said.

They should also protect domestic workers’ rights to organise, form unions and associations, and campaign for their rights, it added.

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