Switzerland - ILO


With Barbro Budin

“We will remember this day forever as our anniversary”

New convention on decent work

for domestic workers




Last June 16, in a historic session, the 100th annual Conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted Convention 189 and Recommendation 201. This important set of standards aimed at improving working conditions for domestic workers worldwide was approved by a huge majority. The IUF was actively engaged throughout the process leading up to this major gain. Sirel spoke with Barbro Budin, IUF equality and education officer, who has been a constant supporter of these workers through her work in our international organization.



-What can you tell us about the process leading up to the adoption of this Convention?

-In 2006 we held the first International Meeting on Domestic Workers, in Amsterdam, organized by the IUF in collaboration with other bodies.


At that meeting, the domestic worker representatives made it very clear that from then on they wanted to speak for themselves, with their own voice, as they were tired of others speaking for them.


Participants at the meeting also agreed on the need to move towards the adoption by the ILO of an international convention for their activity. We warned them that that could take a long time, but they said they had been fighting for so long it that they were prepared to wait for however long it took as long as they attained their goal. The first request in this sense was made more than 60 years ago, but it didn’t get very far.


After that first meeting, the participating organizations appealed for support to the IUF for the establishment of an International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), which was then quickly formed.


In 2008 we were able to organize the first meeting of the IDWN, which was held here in Geneva. Shortly after, the ILO Governing Body included the issue in the agenda of its 2010 and 2011 conferences.


We were very surprised and pleased to have obtained an almost immediate response from the ILO to this demand from domestic workers.


-How did you organize for these conferences?

-We got to work immediately. The ILO itself participated in this task, keeping in constant contact with the IDWN, conducting investigation in various countries with the aim of gaining a thorough understanding of the situation of these workers and gathering reliable information and facts, a process in which the Network played a key role.


We also worked hard with the representatives of the Network so that they could speak “with their own voice,” like they wanted.



It is the first recognition ever that domestic workers have the same fundamental rights as workers in other categories.




With that aim, in 2009 we brought a dozen domestic worker representatives from different parts of the world to Geneva, so they could follow the ILO Commission’s work up close, and thus prepare for the 2010 activity they would be participating in.


We thought it was necessary to prepare them because it could be a shock for them to arrive with no previous experience to one of those large meeting halls in the ILO, and that shock could work against them.


We also worked extensively with them to inform them about how the ILO operates and how it is structured.


The Network then set out to establish coordinating units by region. It now has a Latin American unit, in Mexico; an Africa and Asia/Pacific unit; and it has contacts in North America, the Caribbean and Europe.


Lastly, to ensure that the IDWN would have a large representation at the 2010 International Labour Conference (ILC), we asked the national labor confederations to include  representatives of domestic worker organizations among their delegations.


-How was that first round of discussion in 2010?

-The negotiations were quite difficult because the employer representatives did everything they could to hinder and holdup the debate. So much so that at one point we feared that we wouldn’t be able to discuss the Recommendation in the second round of discussions at the 2011 ILC before the period of negotiations ended.


But the worker and government representatives decided to withdraw their amendments with the aim of moving the discussion forward, so the employer representatives failed in their attempt. And that’s how we were able to pass the Recommendation.


-And what happened this year?

-Well, this year we had even more delegates representing domestic workers who participated directly through the Network, and there were also domestic worker representatives in the delegations of the national labor confederation.


The employers, for their part, had changed their spokesperson and the replacement came with a much more productive attitude and voiced no opposition to the Convention, and that made negotiations easier and more productive. We were even able to add to the text that had been submitted.


Only towards the end of the debate did we meet with some obstacles, as certain employers who were not part of the Commission opposed the standards. But, again, they failed in their attempt.


So, that was how, the adoption of the Convention and the Recommendation was achieved by a wide margin.


-What are the key aspects of this Convention?

-It is the first recognition ever that domestic workers have the same fundamental rights as workers in other categories.


Today domestic workers are excluded from many national legislations that guarantee basic rights protected under general conventions, such as freedom of association, collective bargaining and the prohibition of forced and child labor, among other rights.


These new standards also regulate work hours, provide for the mandatory payment of overtime and stipulate that any periods in which workers remain “at the disposal” of their employer must also be paid. 


-It won’t be easy to enforce this…

-This last point was particularly difficult, because some employers believed that workers could not be paid the same for “waiting time” than what they’re paid when they are “really working.” But to that we responded that during that time workers are not free to do what they want, because they’re “on call,” so that time should be paid time.


The Convention stipulates a weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, and this was also a difficult point, even though in any other activity it’s such a basic right. These are examples of the enormous discrimination that domestic workers have always suffered.


Workers must know the terms and conditions of their employment and if possible have them in writing in a clear and understandable language, including compensation, work hours, etc. We also faced some resistance from certain governments –in particular, the British government and other governments of the European Union– and certain employers.



The countries of Latin America have played a major role in this discussion, especially Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, as their legislations were mentioned repeatedly as examples on the subject.




The Convention also establishes that the rights of migrant workers must be contemplated and that employment agencies must be regulated to prevent trafficking and abuse.


Another important point is the stipulation that in all cases workers must be free to decide if they want to stay in the employer’s household. And of course, employers must be prohibited from retaining the identity documents of the workers they hire.


National legislation should provide that domestic workers be granted social security coverage, which could be said amounts to the recognition of their right to be sick and retire.


Another important aspect is the application of the Occupational Health and Safety Convention and the implementation of labor inspections, an issue in which Uruguay has been very active.


-What are the next steps in the process of this Convention?

-It needs to be ratified by two governments in order for it to enter into force. Several countries have already announced that they will ratify it, including the Philippines and Uruguay.


In this sense, I must highlight that the countries of Latin America have played a major role in this discussion, especially Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, as their legislations were mentioned repeatedly as examples on the subject.


In contrast, the governments of the European Union, and in particular the government of the United Kingdom, were quite a disappointment.


-How do domestic workers feel now?

-I don’t think the ILO had ever seen so many domestic workers in its meeting halls before (laughter).


I have rarely seen so many tears of joy in these halls. When the Convention was finally adopted there was a burst of joy and we spread out a huge banner calling for its ratification. When we did this, ILO Director Juan Somavía stood up and applauded us. At the end of the session, he was visibly moved by this achievement and he shared a moment with the Network delegation.


We were singing and dancing. It was a huge celebration (laughter).


This is the culmination of years of teamwork by several organizations, and like a fellow worker from Africa said: “June 16 is our real anniversary as a group.” 

From Montevideo, Carlos Amorín


June 27, 2011





Photo: Rel-UITA

Illustration: Boligan, CartonClub


- See Text of the Convention

- See Text of the Recommendation on Decent Work for Domestic Workers


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