The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that there are over 53 million domestic workers across the globe, though the true number may be as high as 100 million. Yet nearly a third of these workers are in countries that grant them no protection under national labor laws. The vast majority are women and girls, and are often migrants barred from protest by limited resources and language barriers.
The threats facing domestic workers are diverse. As a report issued by the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch on Monday notes, “entrenched social norms, the lack of legal protection, and poor enforcement of the protections that do exist contribute to many domestic workers being grossly underpaid and forced to work unrelentingly long hours, seven days a week for months or years on end.”
But for the first time, global standards for domestic labor rights have been set, and they could lead to tangible progress in countries that currently lack them. In September, the Domestic Workers Convention enshrined in a treaty rights that many workers in the world take for granted. The rights to weekly days off, daily limits on work hours, overtime compensation, and a minimum wage were among the convention’s basic principles. By mid-September, ten countries had ratified the treaty, with several others progressing towards that goal.
According to Human Rights Watch, the region most accepting of the convention was Latin America and the Carribean: Uruguay, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Guyana all ratified the treaty. Colombia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic are close to following suit. Meanwhile, only two countries in the European Union (EU) — Italy and Germany — have ratified the treaty, though the European Commission drafted a proposal that would authorize any EU member nation to follow their lead.
But the Domestic Workers Convention is not the only path for extending labor protections to the most vulnerable. Brazil, Argentina, and Spain join several other nations that have passed comprehensive reforms in recent years that established standard hours and work days, annual vacation times, and maternity leave. More incremental steps — such as setting or raising minimum wages — were secured in states such as Zambia, India, and Tanzania. Chile and the United Arab Emirates are also considering limited legislation.
Although a vocal supporter of the Domestic Workers Convention, the United States is unlikely to ratify. The United States has, however, found some success in garnering protections for domestic workers on the state level. In New York, Hawaii, and California, domestic workers are provided with basic protection from employment discrimination and given the same wage and hourly standards as other workers. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in September to include home care workers, fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to ensure these workers enjoyed federal minimum wage and overtime protections.
Christopher Butterfield is an intern for ThinkProgress.