With Barbro Budin
“We will remember this
day forever as our anniversary”
New convention on decent work
for domestic workers
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
-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
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
We were very surprised and pleased to have obtained an almost
immediate response from the ILO to this demand from domestic
-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
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
-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
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
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
-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
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
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
-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
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
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.”