In late March 2008, I got an urgent call from the United Nations’ specialized agency on labor, the International Labour Organization (ILO). To the surprise of many, the ILO’s Governing Body had just adopted a resolution requiring it to prepare to negotiate a new international treaty on decent work for domestic workers. I was asked to serve as the ILO’s lead expert, as part of a process of making domestic work visible.
The “invisibility” of domestic work
As the people who care for others, domestic workers are accustomed to not being really seen, and not being really heard. Historical accounts remind us of the link to domestic slavery and colonial servitude, and of the persisting vestiges found in the “common sense” of the status-based relationship of the master and the servant. The many poignant sociological accounts of domestic work in post-colonial or post-apartheid states emphasize how domestic workers remain “invisible” even as they perform the hard and dirty work associated with social reproduction. The political economy literature stresses the extent to which domestic workers – often highly educated and with care responsibilities of their own – leave family and home to travel abroad to provide care. The literature captures the extent to which the magnitude of this staggering transnational, traditionally feminized care work remains economically and socially undervalued.
The ILO considers that there are at least 67 million women and men in domestic work; one in every 25 women workers worldwide is a domestic worker. Domestic workers’ contributions to the global economy are undervalued despite a rise in demand for privatized care. Some speak of global care chains; Rhacel Parreñas refers instead to care resource extraction, noting that the sending countries of the Global South provide subsidized, often well-educated workers to the Global North, which further enables the Global North to build its markets on the backs of migrants from the Global South. Transborder movement by domestic workers is a remittance-based strategy associated with a neoliberal approach to economic development anchored in temporary migration.
Domestic workers demanded recognition in the international standard setting. They had been organizing regionally for decades, and coalesced through a transnational network cum trade union federation to defend their rights in a unique international forum. The International Labour Organization was founded almost a century ago, in 1919, as a tripartite institution representing workers and employers alongside governments. The first words of its constitution state that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice,” and in 1944 the Declaration of Philadelphia added that “labour is not a commodity.” Despite urgent calls to adopt an instrument on domestic workers since 1936, standard setting on decent work for domestic workers waited until standard setting had gone out of fashion at the ILO. The stakes of adopting a new standard were high.
Regulating decent work for domestic workers
Mainstream labor law is under challenge, both under neoliberal austerity measures and for its boundary drawing that excludes increasingly marginalized and informal economy workers. Decent work for domestic workers was an exercise in both acknowledging and challenging labor law’s boundaries. I framed the ILO’s Law and Practice Report from a critical posture, while drawing strategically on rights discourse to foster inclusion: that is, domestic workers claimed the right to be included in labor law. The claim was significant because the Convention and Recommendation were not intended to be merely a symbolic instrument or an abstract “charter” of rights: they were detailed and comprehensive.
In a shift from traditional approaches to legal transplantation that are imagined to radiate out from the Global North to the rest of the world, the instruments built on regulatory experimentation that emerged largely from countries in the Global South such as South Africa and Uruguay, alongside countries like France. The standards were intended to broaden the notion of decent work that the ILO had been championing since it extended “decent work to all” in 1999. Under Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201, decent work would come to mean decent working conditions, and much more. It would recognize domestic workers’ equality rights and freedom of association, and extend protection against forced labor and child labor. It would include access to social protection, encompassing maternity leave, occupational safety and health, and social security protections – even though there is some realist recognition that these might need to be provided progressively. But there was more still. A premium was placed on making sure that mechanisms for inspection and dispute resolution were actively available. Decent work would also mean that special attention was needed around the fault lines of migration, to rein in exploitative practices. Convention No. 189 and its accompanying, supplementary Recommendation No. 201 seek no less than to shift the framework governing domestic work from one that enshrines subordination to one that dislodges asymmetrical power. They have been part of building an alternative, counterhegemonic, and transgressive transnational legal order, and they have allowed that order both to settle and be diffused.
The process is not without risks. I fear in particular that those regulating domestic work will continue the spatial perpetuation of subordination and servitude through – rather than despite – labor law reform initiatives in the wake of the new international standards, as neoliberal approaches to the so-called tertiary service economy proliferate and are embodied by marginalized, racialized women. Yet, it is significant that 25 countries from the Global South and Global North have ratified Convention No. 189 in the less than seven years since the new standards were adopted. It is also significant that learning communities have emerged to share experiences and promote decent work for domestic workers through forms of international solidarity. Most of all, it is significant that domestic workers have mobilized and continue to insist that in decent work for domestic workers, there is “nothing for us without us.”