March 1, 2017

Domestic Workers Organizing

Jennifer Fish

The Convention 189 Campaign as a Mobilization Model

Precarity is on the rise. Low-wage service jobs have seen a significant surge in the last years, and domestic work has become one of the largest sectors of employment in the global economy. And these household workers have been almost entirely excluded from the labor protections afforded to most other workers.
According to official estimates, women account for about 83 percent of domestic workers worldwide. Overwhelmingly, this sector is comprised of poor women, immigrants, and women of color. This means that an already socially and economically vulnerable workforce is susceptible to additional difficulties stemming from discrimination and violence.

Considering the particular conditions of this sector, the International Labor Conference recognized the need for a special international instrument focused on domestic workers as early as 1948. For decades, however, no such instrument was introduced. Challenging international institutions and government negligence, informal workers’ movements across the globe organized for developing new strategies and building new vehicles to take up the struggle, engaging old and new allies along the way. Domestic workers, and particularly the women among them, have been at the forefronts of these battles against precarity during the last decade, and it was their coordinated global effort that led to the adoption of the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (Convention 189) and the accompanying Recommendation at the 100th International Labor Conference in 2011. This achievement represents a milestone for household workers, whose conditions and place in the labor market were acknowledged for the first time. By incorporating a human rights approach to the negotiation process, it also marked a turning point for international labor regulations.

As a lead-up to the sixty-first session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 61), we take a look at its priority theme—women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work—from the perspective of working-class women. In this study, Jennifer Fish, Chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at Old Dominion University and a key partner of domestic workers’ organizations, takes Convention 189 as a case study to analyze the potential and shortcomings of a UN approach to labor rights.

The campaign is at a critical juncture this year. While domestic workers are continuing to organize at the national level in order to advocate for the convention’s ratification and implementation, the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment has decided to push for ratification, with the stated support of many of its members. The collaborative campaign for Convention 189 exemplifies a way in which UN agencies can work together to enact a global standard for a key group of workers, thus ensuring the respect and protection of millions of women worldwide.