CHILD LABOUR: Child domestic workers - the dawn of a new Convention?

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Every day, millions of children, in rich and poor countries alike, spend their days at the beck and call of adults for whom they cook, clean and take care of children not much younger than themselves. These children are domestic workers.

Detecting the number of children working in domestic service is beyond human capabilities. But, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more girls under 16 worldwide are engaged in domestic service than any other kind of employment.

The hidden nature of domestic work means it often escapes the reach of the law and heightens the risk of abuse for workers at the hands of their employer. Where legal protections do exist, they are often little known and poorly enforced. Domestic workers tend to be undeclared, under-paid and unable to access complaints procedures. Furthermore, according to the ILO, domestic work is under-valued because it is seen as 'women's innate rather than acquired capacity'.

Negotiations began in Geneva this month to change all this. The ILO met with governments, employers and workers to discuss a possible new global instrument to ensure decent work for domestic workers. The instrument, which will take the form of a Convention supplemented by a Recommendation, will also provide guidance on how to make sure laws and regulations are applied in practice. 

We are happy to report that children's rights advocates have been on the frontline of the negotiations, pressing for special protections for children who work in domestic service.

Full details of the first round of negotiations are available here. Further discussions will take place at a future session. One area of contention was whether the Convention should explicitly include boys within its scope.

This edition of CRINMAIL sheds light on the lives of child domestic workers, explains what children's rights advocates are pushing for in the new standard, and provides a snapshot of the situation of child domestic workers across the world. We also catch up with a member of the African Movement for Working Children and Youth to hear about his experiences of working in domestic service.


Call for action for global protections for child domestic workers

In advance of the ILO meeting, Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch and Save the Children initiated a statement calling upon members of the ILO to give special consideration to the vulnerability of child domestic workers around the world, and to adopt a binding Convention that ensures special protections for children. The statement, hosted on the CRIN website, drew support from 250 NGOs across the world. Read the text of the statement below. 

Child domestic workers – Who are they?

Millions of children around the world work in households other than their own, doing cleaning, laundry, cooking and other domestic chores; caring for children; tending the garden; and running errands; amongst other tasks. These child domestic workers include children who ‘live in’ and those who live separately from their employers; those who are paid for their work, those who are not paid, and those who receive ‘in-kind’ benefits, such as food and shelter.

In many countries, child domestic workers begin work by the age of 12. Some start work as early as six years old. Child domestic workers are predominantly girls, although in some countries a significant number of boys are in domestic work. The ILO estimates that more girls under sixteen work in domestic service than in any other category of child labour.

The specific vulnerability of child domestic workers

Despite their important contributions to their employers’ household and the global economy, domestic workers are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world, due to persistent discrimination, exclusion from labour laws, isolation, and the invisible nature of their work. Children are at even greater risk, due to their young ages, lack of awareness of their rights, separation from their family, and dependence on their employer. While not all child domestic workers suffer abuse or exploitation, children working as domestics are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, forced labour, and the worst forms of child labour, making child domestic work one of the most widespread and potentially exploitative forms of child work in the world today.

Invisibility, isolation and dependence 

Many child domestic workers live in their employer’s home, making them highly dependent upon their employers for their basic needs. Their freedom of movement, their ability to contact their families or friends, to attend school or to access services, is often solely dependent on their employer’s discretion. Their isolation makes it difficult for them to seek help or for outsiders to detect cases where child domestic workers suffer from abuse or exploitation. 

Long hours, low wages, little rest 

Child domestic work is often characterised by long working hours and a lack of rest days or vacation time, and little pay. Child domestic workers often work for a fraction of the minimum wage, if they are paid at all. Those who live with their employers can be “on call” for 24 hours a day. Long hours of work and little time for rest, recreation or socialising negatively impact the child’s mental, physical, social and intellectual development.


The nature of domestic work exposes child domestic workers to a range of household dangers. Many have suffered serious injuries from the use of hazardous materials and equipment, such as sharp knives, hot irons, boiling water, electrical appliances, and hazardous chemicals such as bleach, often without training or protective clothing. When expected to perform skilled tasks such as childcare or caring for the elderly with minimum training, children can struggle with constant demands and responsibilities. Child domestic workers often receive little or inadequate medical treatment in times of ill health. 

Abuse and violence

Child domestic workers are frequently subjected to verbal, physical and sometimes sexual violence. Verbal violence takes the form of name-calling, insults, threats, swearing, screaming and shouting. Physical violence may include beating, kicking, whipping, pinching, overwork and denial of food. Due to the child’s vulnerability and isolation, sexual violence is relatively common. A child domestic worker may be seen as an acceptable target for sexual harassment or violence by the men or boys of the household. In cases where girls become pregnant, they are often thrown out of the house and forced to fend for themselves on the streets, as the shame of their situation makes it difficult for them to return home. When violence does occur, the child’s dependency on the employer for their basic needs makes them far less likely to report it.

Denial of education 

Research shows that most child domestic workers attach great importance to getting an education. For many, the promise of schooling was a key factor behind their entry into domestic service. However, the reality is that many, if not most, child domestic workers are denied the opportunity to go to school. Even when an employer does not prevent attendance, the long working hours and requirements of a child domestic worker’s job make it very difficult to keep up with their studies. The inflexibility of the formal education system can be another obstacle, alongside the difficulty in affording school fees, books, uniforms and transportation costs. 

Domestic servitude 

In extreme cases, the conditions and circumstances of child domestic work can amount to forced labour. Many children are trafficked into domestic servitude, and some are in bonded labour, forced to work to pay off a loan that their parents have received from their employer.


The failure of existing international standards to protect child domestic workers

Existing international standards are not sufficient to protect child domestic workers from abuse and exploitation. In particular, existing conventions do not address the unique circumstances of child domestic workers, the specific conditions in which child domestic work is performed, and the specific vulnerabilities to abuse and exploitation that these can create.

While the provisions of many other ILO conventions technically apply to the most exploitative forms of domestic work, traditional perceptions of domestic workers as “helpers” rather than “workers”, and the location of employment in private households has meant that, in practice, these protections have not extended to domestic workers, including child domestic workers. In many countries, national labour legislation exempts domestic workers from their protections.

ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment allows scope for ratifying States to exclude child domestic workers from national minimum age legislation. Similarly, there is no explicit reference to the situation of child domestic workers as a special cause for concern in ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (or any other ILO standard), although the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has expressed repeated concerns about the situation of child domestic workers when reviewing state compliance with ILO Convention 182.

Child domestic workers need effective laws and regulations as well as protection mechanisms which are tailored to the unique nature of their work and their special protection needs.


The current ILO standard setting process on decent work for domestic workers offers a historic opportunity for the international community to address the special vulnerability of child domestic workers and fill the gaps in existing international standards.

ILO members should support key provisions in a new ILO Convention to protect all domestic workers. By doing so, they will also strengthen protections for child domestic workers. Such provisions should include:

  • Equal protection under the law, including terms of employment and conditions of work that comply with principles of decent work and other international standards, including:

  • The right to a minimum wage, weekly day of rest, and coverage by social security schemes, including employment injury, and medical care;

  • Freedom to choose whether to live within the household of their employer or independently;

  • Freedom of movement and prohibition of any forced confinement; 

  • Criminalisation and effective sanctions against employer abuses, including physical and sexual abuse, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, and employment of underage workers;

  • Establishment of effective and accessible complaint mechanisms, prompt investigation of complaints, and appropriate action, including criminal prosecution when warranted. 

  • Provision of support and assistance to domestic workers, including children, who have been subjected to physical, sexual or other forms of abuse or exploitation.

The ILO Convention should also include special provisions to address the unique vulnerabilities and rights of children. Such provisions should be at least as favourable as those that apply to other child workers under national law, and should include:

  • In accordance with ILO Convention 138, establishment of a minimum age for admission to domestic work that is not less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, not less than 15 years;

  • Prohibition of domestic work that is likely to be hazardous or constitute the worst forms of child labour by children under the age of 18, in line with Convention 182;

  • A written employment agreement setting out the terms of employment;

  • Limited hours of work in order to allow enough time for education and training (including time for homework), for rest during the day, and for leisure activities. Child domestic workers should not be expected to work (whether on standby or otherwise) in the early morning or late at night, i.e: before 7 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

  • Effective mechanisms to identify, assess, and safely withdraw from the workplace child domestic workers employed under legal working age or in hazardous, abusive or exploitative conditions. Withdrawal, support and follow up need to be carried out following a best interests of the child assessment and should include providing interim support and counselling and finding durable solutions based on such assessment and with the full participation of the child. Such solutions would include, amongst others, facilitating their reunification with their families, if this is in the best interest of the child; and facilitating their access to education or training.

  • Mechanisms to monitor and protect child domestic work, such as: regular monitoring of labour supplier agencies to ensure that young children are not employed as domestics, a compulsory system for employers to register the name and age of domestic workers which links with the local child protection system.

  • A compulsory regular contact time between the child domestic worker and the local child welfare authorities for the purpose of monitoring the child’s wellbeing and coordinate referral to other services, including counselling and legal advice.

  • Members should ensure that child domestic workers have opportunities to continue their education, if desired, including through access to basic and secondary education, vocational training, and informal education programmes, and that special measures are taken to ensure that child domestic workers and their employers are aware of such opportunities.

See signatures to the call for action here.


In the pipeline

The UN Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers plans to adopt its first 'General Comment' on domestic migrant workers this year. The announcement was made after the Committee held a discussion day on the subject at its 11th session in October 2009. A number of NGOs made submissions for the Committee's consideration, including children's rights NGOs.

See submissions by:

The Committee decided the theme of its first General Comment in order to coincide with the proposed ILO instrument on the rights of domestic workers. The two bodies will coordinate their work.

Astonishingly, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and yet to date no Member State of the European Union has signed or ratified the Convention.

December 18th - a Brussels based NGO – has launched a six-month petitionencouraging States to sign and ratify the Convention. The petition will be presented to the Belgian government in December, which will be holding the European Union presidency, as well as Hungary, which will assume the presidency at the end of the year.

Read more about the Committee's work here.


Violating the rights of child domestic workers - examples

On a recent visit to Ecuador, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, stressed that “despite the progress made, the extent of child labour remains alarming and domestic servitude and debt bondage are challenges still to be overcome.” She described child labour as “an obstacle to the development of Ecuador where a high percentage of the population are children” (UN, February 2010).

In Indonesia, this report by Human Rights Watch documents how hundreds of thousands of girls, some as young as 11, are employed as domestic workers in other people’s households, performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and child care. Most girls interviewed for the report worked 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with no day off. Almost all are grossly underpaid, and some get no salary at all. In the worst cases, girls reported being physically, psychologically, and sexually abused.

In Bangalore, India, in 2001, a 15-year-old girl filed a complaint against a couple who had hired her as domestic help and then subjected her to physical abuse. Neighbours who witnessed the abuse encouraged Nalini (name changed) to slip out of the house and call a child helpline for support. Nalini's case was taken up by the Union of, by and for Working Children and the couple were ordered to pay her Rs. 50,000 ($1000) in compensation.

In Haiti, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern at the ill-treatment of child domestic workers (restaveks).

The Committee expressed particular concern about “the low age (12 years) retained in article 341 of the Labour Code at which children can be placed with families, taking into account that, in practice, even younger children are concerned. The Committee notes with concern that these children, most of them girls, are forced to work long hours under harsh conditions and without any financial gains, and are subjected to ill-treatment and abuse, including sexual abuse.” (Concluding Observations, 2003, paragraphs 36 and 56) 

In Malaysia, the Committee expressed alarm at “the high number of migrant domestic workers in the State, including child domestic workers who work under conditions that are hazardous and interfere with children's education, and are harmful to children's health and physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” (Concluding Observations, 2007, paragraph 91). 

In the United Kingdom, NGO Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA) has reported on the growing phenomenon of child domestic labour (October 2007). 

In Rwanda, the Committee on the Rights of the Child noted that “child labour in the State is widespread, particularly in the informal sector where children work as domestic workers, and children may be working long hours at young ages, which has negative effect on their development and school attendance” (Concluding Observations, 2004, paragraph 64). 


Youth-led movements for working children


Bhima Sangha, India, is a union of, by and for working children. Supported by Concerned for Working Children, it has a membership of 13,000 working children in Karnataka.

The National Movement of Working Children, India, is also supported by Concerned for Working Children.


The African Movement of Working Children and Youth comprises 126 associations in 126 towns in 21 African countries. It is made up of some 1020 grassroots groups including 148,194 domestic workers, market traders, children and young people working independently in streets and markets, and as apprentices.

Latin America:

Movimiento Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes Trabajadores (Latin American and Caribbean Movement of Working Children).


News on other forms of child labour

At the ILO's Global Child Labour conference in the Hague last month, a “Roadmap for Achieving the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2016” was adopted. During the conference, youth-led movements for working children stressed the importance of involving children who work in the discussions. Read a statementby the African Movement for Working Children and a letter to the organisers by the Latin American and Caribbean Movement of Working Children and Adolescents. The Special Representative on Violence against Children also made a statement.

The Indian government has renewed pressure on the United States to extradite the former head of the company responsible for the Bhopal chemical plant in light of new evidence that the company was aware of defects in the plant prior to the 1984 disaster that has been blamed for the deaths of more than 14,000 people, reports CNN. Children are still being born with disabilities and weak immune systems as a result of the disaster. Read the full story.

Meanwhile, the world's biggest technology companies are failing to stamp out child labour and abusive working conditions in their Chinese factories despite repeated accounts of human rights violations.

Human rights group the National Labor Committee (NLC) released a report saying KYE, a factory in Guangdong province that supplies Microsoft, recruits hundreds of "work study students" aged 16 and 17, who work 15-hour shifts, six and seven days a week.

The report, produced after a three-year investigation, found workers were treated like prisoners and share primitive dorm rooms, sleeping on small plywood planks and having to buy their own food and mattresses.

In March, Apple said at least 11 15-year-old children were discovered to be working last year in three factories that supply the company. 

Finally, some good news! Last week governments, employers and workers adopted a new international standard on HIV and AIDS. The recommendation is the first international human rights instrument to focus specifically on HIV and AIDS in the workplace. Among its provisions, the instrument stresses that measures to address HIV and AIDS in the workplace should be part of national development policies and programmes. It rejects discrimination against workers, job-seekers and applicants on the grounds of real or perceived HIV status, and accords “fundamental priority” to preventing all modes of HIV transmission.

The standard states that workers, their families and their dependants should enjoy protection of their privacy, including confidentiality related to HIV and AIDS, and that no workers should be required to undertake an HIV test or disclose their HIV status. The workplace is expected to facilitate the access, by workers, their families and dependants, to prevention, treatment, care and support. Read the full story


Further information


    Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.