By Naomi Abraham
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Historic job protections begin next month for domestic workers in New York. Overtime, paid leave and anti-discrimination provisions are part of a package that could start setting new standards for what some call the most vulnerable job market in every part of the world.
Yesterday Human Rights Watch called attention to the case of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia sentenced to execution for killing a child in her care when she was 17. The organization raised concerns over Nafeek's lack of access to proper legal counsel, lawyers and competent translators during her interrogation and trial.
This past summer another extreme example surfaced in Saudi Arabia when Lahanda Purage Ariyawathie, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan maid, returned home after a four-month work stint. Airport security detected 24 nails skewered into her arms and legs by the Saudi couple for whom she had worked.
Advocates for domestic workers blame the unregulated nature of this job market for many of its problems.
Domestic workers constitute 4 to 10 percent of the labor force in developing countries and about 2.5 percent of the labor force in industrialized countries, according to the International Labor Organization.
Manela Tomei, director of its program on employment conditions, calls domestic workers the most legally and socially vulnerable labor force because they are excluded either by law or everyday practices from national labor laws and social security systems in both industrialized and developing countries. Widespread presumptions about the safety of household work further compound the problem by excluding workers in many countries from occupational safety and health regulations, she says on the group's Web site.
Plenty of men are domestic workers, but the vast majority are women.
Establishing legally binding standards to ensure that these workers, who form one of the largest segments of the global work force, are treated fairly is a long-held struggle for domestic workers and their advocates.
Lately, however, there has been some progress.
Last June, for the first time since 1948, domestic work made it on the agenda of the International Labor Conference, an annual meeting of the International Labor Organization.
That meeting ended with member states calling for a convention on domestic work to provide fundamental safeguards such as the right to form a union, earn a livable wage and a legal recourse for challenging maltreatment. The convention will be formally introduced and voted on during the group's upcoming annual conference in June 2011.
Only in a few countries such as Brazil, Bolivia and South Africa are domestic workers included in employment laws.
"Whether or not governments ratify or implement the convention, domestic workers and their organizations will use the convention as a normative framework in their daily advocacy and negotiations," said Martha Chen, a lecturer on international development at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
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Naomi Abraham is a freelance writer in New York.
Domestic Workers United:
International Labor Organization:
Human Rights Watch reporting on Rizana Nafeek's case: