Report from Geneva--Domestic workers take center stage

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

By Ai-Jen Poo, Domestic Workers United

I’m on my way home from a week of discussion and debate about the proposed Convention concerning “Decent Work for Domestic Workers” at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. This is the first international convention on domestic work. Getting here has been a long road, more than ten years in the making. But we are now in the final hours of the journey to gain recognition in the international arena for domestic workers. The draft of the Convention and Recommendation (which provides guidance to governments on how to concretely address the issues outlined in the Convention) was completed on Friday. The final vote on the convention will take place on June 16.

I want to give you a sense of how the development of this kind of labor convention works. Picture a very large room, divided in three sections. One section is for workers’ groups, and it is made up of representatives from the largest trade union federations in each country. Sitting behind them, there are representatives from NGO’s representing domestic workers. Opposite them sits the employers’ group, which is made up of delegates from the largest representative employer organization in each country. In between the workers’ and employers’ groups sit two to three representatives from every government member of the International Labor Organization (183 countries). Together, these three sections comprise the Committee on Domestic Work. The Committee meets twice daily for two weeks in order to review, amend and eventually reach consensus or vote on every article in the convention and every paragraph in the recommendation.

The process involves long and, preferably, diplomatic discussion about the controversial issues that domestic workers face every day in our work: how to count hours of work for domestic workers, particularly for live-in workers; whether stand-by time (that is, when workers are expected to be immediately available in case they are needed at any moment - whether it’s to comfort a crying child who woke up in the middle of the night or to help ease the pain of a sick family member in the early morning) should be counted as official work hours; how migrant workers should be treated by employers and by governments; what it means to treat this workforce equally or - in the technical terminology - “not less favorably” than other workers. Basically, these dialogues focus on developing a basic standard for what the conditions and terms of work for domestic workers should be.

This is a challenging process for any industry, but there are particular challenges when it comes to domestic work. For most of human history, the work of domestic workers has been invisible, hidden away in private homes. It has been considered “natural” women’s work, and it has been taken for granted. During this International Labor Organization process, governments, national trade union federations and employer groups from every nation have had to sit down and think deeply about domestic work as real work that - like any other type of work - deserves basic labor standards. These delegates have had to reflect on the daily realities of domestic work and work to develop an instrument that can be ratified into law in nations around the world to finally recognize and protect domestic workers.

I have a few reflections from the process that I wanted to share with you.

I learned so much about the importance of progressive governmental voices in the international arena. The government voices that spoke loudest, this year and last, in support of a strong convention on domestic work came from Brazil, South Africa and the United States. In Brazil and South Africa, domestic workers’ movements have captured the imagination of the public, and they have been able to deeply integrate workers’ rights into the agenda of their governments. While conditions for workers in the United States are different and the labor movement is under widespread attack, we do have a public official - our Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis - who has a profound dedication to protecting vulnerable workers. The daughter of a domestic worker and the product of a proud union household, she has prioritized vulnerable workers at every level of the Department of Labor, including at the International Labor Affairs Bureau. This meant that the US government delegation to the Domestic Work Convention played an important progressive role in the negotiations, consistently challenging the European Union and other nations to support strong protections for domestic workers. One of our members reflected that the role of the U.S. government delegation at these meetings made her feel a deep sense of pride to be from the United States, for the first time in her life.

Finally, the U.S. labor movement also played an important progressive role in the negotiations, providing a model of the ways in which trade union federations and independent workers movements can work together to improve the lives of working people. I’m proud to say that - building on the partnership that has formed between the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the AFL-CIO - the United States was the first among the world’s trade union federations to include a domestic worker, Juana Flores from Mujeres Unidas y Activas, in its official labor delegation to the ILO. NDWA and the AFL-CIO sent an open letter to trade unions around the world, encouraging them to take up this model of collaboration and partnership: to seat domestic worker representatives as voting delegates at the ILO (this year over 20 domestic workers represented themselves as voting delegates in the process), and to build lasting partnerships to win ratification of the convention and labor standards for domestic workers in every country of the world.

This is a moment to take in and to celebrate. Milestones like this are few and far between. It still makes me breathe deeply when I think about the significance of this moment. Perhaps it was unusual in the history of the ILO, but my experience there is captured by the image of row after row of women worker leaders from every region of the world, following the discussion in at least eight languages, working together to champion the dignity of domestic work on an international stage. Our work is not done; we have a long road ahead. As a reminder and an inspiration, I want to share some words spoken by a worker from the Guatemalan domestic workers union (SINTRAHDOMSA) after the adoption of the draft Convention, “We have broken the silence. We have yet to break our chains." As we mark our progress, we take our place in a growing global effort to transform the world of work and bring dignity to the work that makes all other work possible.

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