CHILD LABOUR: Child domestic workers - the dawn of a new Convention? (part 2)

Summary: The International Labour Conference is preparing to vote on a new global instrument to ensure decent work for domestic workers next week.


In June 2010, CRIN reported on negotiations for the instrument and what it could mean for children working in domestic service.

Now, as the final vote draws near, Audrey Guichon from Anti-Slavery International, which has supported child domestic workers press for special provisions, tells us how their lobbying efforts are faring in this week's guest editorial.


At its 100th session starting on June 1st this year, the International Labour Conference will be asked to vote on the adoption of a Convention and a Recommendation on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

ILO Conventions apply in theory to domestic workers, but the traditional perception that they offer informal help rather than work, their lack of visibility and the unique nature of their workplace in the home have all meant that they have not benefited from international labour regulations. National laws commonly also make exceptions to their inclusion in core labour laws.

Domestic work is one of the oldest occupations in the world and is an important job for millions of people, representing up to 10 per cent of total employment in some countries. Domestic workers perform a range of tasks in private homes including cooking, cleaning, laundry, and taking care of children and the elderly.

Women and girls make up the overwhelming majority of domestic workers worldwide. Some are migrant workers from other countries, whilst others have moved within their own country, often from rural areas to the city.

Child domestic workers are also extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Due to their young age and separation from their family they are inherently easier to coerce and control. In most countries the minimum age for employment is 15 years old but child domestic workers are often younger with some starting work as young as the age of six.

Last year, an important step was taken when the International Labour Conference (ILC) agreed that the international norm under discussion needed to take the form of a Convention and a Recommendation which would include, amongst other important provisions on migrant domestic workers, provisons on working hours and protection against abuse and violence.

Anti-Slavery International and Children Unite consulted with approximately 150 children in 6 countries to ask them their views on what should be included to protect children specifically. Five current and former child domestic workers went to Geneva to present their recommendations during the 2010 ILC. They expressed four key concerns:

  1. No-one should be a domestic worker below the national legal minimum working age. Young domestic workers above this age (usually 14 or 15 years) can work, but their employment should be subject to special protection.
  2. Written employment agreements are the best way of ending exploitation and getting young domestic workers back into education.
  3. Young domestic workers need urgent protection from physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Local leaders and law enforcers should look out for and assist young domestic workers in abusive situations.
  4. Often isolated, young domestic workers should be locally registered and given opportunities to organise.

Following the 2010 ILC, 2 articles were put forward to address the needs of child domestic workers; they are article 4 and paragraph 4 of the Convention and Recommendation.

Anti-Slavery International and Children Unite welcome these two articles.

This year, we organised the consultation of a total of 252 children in India, Nepal, Philippines, Tanzania, Togo, Peru and Costa Rica through our partner organisations, between February and May 2011. Current and former child domestic workers shared their enthusiasm and expectations about the way the Convention and Recommendation would improve their working conditions and impact their lives and are asking delegates at the ILC to support the adoption of article 4 and paragraph 4 of the Convention and Recommendation. Below are the reasons why child domestic workers think that these two provisions should be supported by ILO delegates and implemented at national level following the ratification of the two instruments.

Right to Education (article 4 of the Convention)

The current draft of article 4 recognises the right of young domestic workers to an education. Young domestic workers are often deprived of an education, curtailing their chances for better life and personal development. During the consultation, whether or not they had received any type of training, child domestic workers were unanimous in reaffirming the importance of education and their unconditional support for the recognition of this right in the Convention.

In particular, child domestic workers think:

  • Formal education and vocational training are both essential and provide them with complementary skills and knowledge for their future life;
  • The right to compulsory primary education is a minimum standard which should in no case be derogated from and should be complemented by vocational training and/or further education depending on the particular choice and need of each young person.
  • Child domestic workers also warn of the obstacles they commonly face that make it difficult and sometimes impossible for them to receive an education:
  • the costs of schooling and training, including uniforms, fees, books and equipment;
  • the limited time they have to go to school/training after they have completed their domestic tasks;
  • the opposition of employers and parents to their right to education;
  • the discriminatory attitude of school children and staff, and the failure of the education system to take into account their special needs.

For me, going to school helped a lot, because it was a place to play with others. When you work, you can't play (María, Lima, Peru)

Going to school makes it possible to find a good job; our employers have a job because they went to school (Salomé, Lomé, Togo)

Schooling gives you better jobs than just being a maid (Leah, Manila, Philippines)


Special protection for young domestic workers (paragraph 4)

The majority of the children who were consulted are 'live-in' domestic workers i.e. living with their employer. In most cases, they have been pushed into this situation because of: a lack of opportunity in the region where they come from; because they have been recruited by an employer to work and live in a house; because they saw it as their only chance to go to school; or because they were lured into thinking that their situation would be better in the city.

The views of child domestic workers are pretty clear: in a majority of cases, and given the choice, they would prefer not to live within the home of their employer. Their reasons for this include:

  • living-in increases their vulnerability to abuse because of their increased isolation and a lack of monitoring or supervision of their work situation;
  • children who live-in with their employer are given a substantially heavier workload and are often expected to work at night;
  • their living conditions can be very bad, including a complete lack of privacy, absence of adequate sleeping arrangements and a lack of appropriate food;
  • they suffer an increased sense of loneliness caused by the lack of contact with their family and friends.

Child domestic workers have also made it clear that it is in the power of the employers to change a negative situation into a positive one by providing food instead of depriving them of it; by paying an agreed salary instead of withholding it; by providing guidance and advice rather than humiliating them.

The two most common expectations expressed by young domestic workers who were living-in with their employers are:

  • not to be treated differently from other members of the family;
  • not to be expected to work more than their agreed hours and for no less than their agreed salary.

We can be badly treated, abused physically or through work, they can force us to work at night and not give us enough rest (Luisa, San José, Costa Rica)

I prefer to live with my employers because they are good to me. They don't force me to do things that I cannot do. For example, I get enough rest and I can decide when I want to do laundry, etc (Evelyn, Manila, Philippines)

In line with paragraph 4 of the Recommendation, young domestic workers identified a number of tasks which they consider to be dangerous by nature:

  • carrying heavy loads;
  • being given sole responsibility for caring for children or the elderly;
  • cooking (especially when using equipment unknown to the child);
  • carrying out unhygienic tasks like emptying toilets, sceptic tanks, animal pens or washing underwear.

Young domestic workers also made suggestions regarding the circumstances that can make some tasks dangerous. They mentioned:

  • working in a household composed of many members, which will mean a considerable increase in workload;
  • being asked to perform the same tasks over and over again, which increases the risks of accidents by carelessness and worsens the impact of chemicals and tasks that are ergonomically detrimental;
  • performing tasks in potentially private rooms places, like the employers bedroom or bathroom, where they are more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Taking care of small children or disabled and elderly people is dangerous because they are vulnerable and we do not know how to take care of them in the way they really need us to (Eva, Costa Rica)

I think that any task, whether easy or hard can be dangerous if we don't pay attention to what we are doing or if we don't do it with a minimum level of safety (Isabel, San José, Costa Rica)

Young domestic workers believe that one very important way to minimise the chance of abuse and exploitation occurring is to ensure that they benefit from employment contracts.

Long working days, delays and deduction in payments, lack of rest or days off are all too common and have the potential to make their work hazardous. Young domestic workers have clearly stated the need to see their employment situation regulated through the use of contracts which should cover all items currently included in the draft Convention. But they add that contracts should also clearly state the right of young workers to attend school/vocational training and clearly identify the tasks that young workers should not be expected to do.

There is no description of the work we have to do when we start; we have to do what the family members need from us (Meena, Tamil Nadu, India)

We have to work for a long time. Often it takes a year before the employer allows you to have a vacation. But this is part of the job (Mary, Manila, Philippines)


Monitoring of living and working conditions (paragraph 4)

Young domestic workers want their situation to be monitored. They believe that putting an end to the isolation they commonly suffer will be instrumental to minimising and eventually stopping the abuse they suffer from. It will help ensure that their well-being as children and young workers is protected.

In particular they have stated that:

  • home visits must take place on a monthly to three-monthly basis; interviews with young domestic workers must be done without the employer present in order to avoid intimidation;
  • monitoring must be done by a state official (local government or labour inspector) accompanied by a social worker, health worker or NGO representative;
  • monitoring must cover all aspects of the living and working conditions of the young domestic worker, as per this draft Convention, including: living arrangements, working hours and conditions, days off, rest, schooling, treatment in the household and payment;
  • monitoring must assess the living and working conditions of young domestic workers against all of the provisions included in article 6 and paragraph 5 (2) of the Convention and Recommendation.

For more information, contact Audrey Guichon: [email protected]




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