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On Oscar night this year, Octavia Spencer won the statuette for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal in The Help of Minny, an outspoken maid in 1960’s Mississippi. She had earlier won the Golden Globe and in her acceptance speech, Spencer, whose mother reportedly worked as a maid, said the film highlighted the situation of domestic workers then and now, and quoted Martin Luther King to say that: “All work that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
Yet, the work and life experiences of Minny and Aibileen and the other women featured in The Help could have been plucked from anywhere in the world today.
At the very least, millions of domestic workers get paid below the minimum wage, and rarely benefit from health insurance, paid leave, or even time off. Take one sick day, and you’re likely to be fired, with no unemployment benefits to speak of. In some parts of the world, domestic workers face physical and sexual abuse, seclusion, conditions of near slavery, and even murder.
Across the world, women make up more than 80 per cent of domestic workers, some 44 million in total. And their numbers are growing under the pressure of demographic and societal changes, widening income inequalities, family-unfriendly workplaces and inadequate public policies.
In many countries such as Brazil or South Africa, domestic work is the most important source of women’s employment and its significance is also growing in industrialized countries like the UK or France.
Domestic work is essential for the smooth running of not only households but also labour markets. It secures care for our children and our homes, allowing our doctors, teachers, lawyers and millions of others to, in turn, go to work.
But domestic workers themselves typically come from the lower echelons of society, have limited years of education, and belong to ethnic groups that are discriminated against or disadvantaged. This explains and reinforces the image of domestic work as a second-class job, and the perception of domestic workers as second-class workers.
As a result, domestic work continues to be poorly regulated and remains largely informal everywhere.
Things are beginning to change though. Last June, the International Labour Organization finally redressed this injustice by adopting a new Convention that lays down global, minimum labour protection for these workers. The new standard establishes that domestic workers should be entitled to social security and a minimum wage (where the latter applies to workers generally), fair terms of employment, and effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.
In sum, domestic work is internationally recognized as work, and domestic workers as deserving the same legal protection as workers generally. Two ratifications are required for the new Convention to enter into force; several countries, including the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden and Uruguay, have already expressed their intention to ratify it before the end of the year.
But the challenges to making domestic work decent work remain. Up until now, it has been a vastly lawless industry, with nearly half the world’s countries having excluded domestic workers from labour legislation. Even in cases where they are covered by the law, they rarely benefit from the same protection as other workers.
What’s more, for protection to be effective, action is required at different governance levels both within and across countries: domestic work is carried out in homes away from public sight and at the same time, is often performed by women who cross national boundaries to take care of other people’s families. The home is not a conventional workplace, and national laws tend to preserve the inviolability of individuals’ privacy. Verifying compliance with the law in private households is therefore more difficult than in a factory or another more conventional workplace. A great deal of innovation and creativity is required.
So too is the mobilization and courage of domestic workers, portrayed so aptly by Octavia Spencer and co-star Viola Davis in The Help, not just in facing oppressive working and living conditions but also in speaking up to demand justice in the face of palpable danger.
We’ve seen examples of such courage, and it is changing things for the better in several countries. In Chile, the Minister of Labour has just reached an agreement with associations of domestic workers to bring the length of the working week down from 72 hours to 45 hours within the next three years. In the US, domestic workers have broken new ground, demanding legislation that explicitly provides domestic workers with the same rights as nearly all other workers. In 2010, the state of New York became the first state in US history to pass such legislation and California is currently considering its own bill. The Philippines, a country which has done a great deal to protect its nationals working abroad as domestics, is about to enact a new law establishing minimum labour protection for Filipino domestic workers at home. This is progress that we need to build on.
On International Women’s Day, governments and employers of domestic workers can send a clear message to the millions of women who work in our homes that ‘helpers’ too are entitled to decent working conditions and to live in dignity. The tale of a poor maid being exploited, beaten up or abused in someone’s home must be consigned to the movies.
By Manuela Tomei
Director, International Labour Organization’s Labour Protection Department....