GENEVA — I met 12-year-old Latifa a few weeks ago in a remote mountain village, a four-hour drive from Marrakech. Like nearly 15 million other children worldwide, Latifa became a domestic worker to earn money to help her family. A recruiter promised her that her employers — a family in Casablanca — would be very kind and pay her well.
In reality, Latifa said, she worked seven days a week, from 6 in the morning until nearly midnight, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, and caring for her employer’s four children. Her employer didn’t allow Latifa to eat from early morning until late at night, and beat her — sometimes with a shoe — when she broke something or the children cried. Latifa told me, “I don’t mind working, but to be beaten and not to have enough food, that was the hardest part of it.”
We have heard similar stories from domestic workers in other countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Lebanon, Guatemala, and Guinea. Experiences like Latifa’s are still far too common, but encouraging national and international reforms in the last year promise respect, dignity, and decent working conditions for millions like her.
A year ago, on June 16, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted a groundbreaking treaty to establish the first global standards for the estimated 50- to 100-million domestic workers worldwide. The Domestic Workers Convention entitles domestic workers to the same rights as other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, and overtime compensation — basic rights that are often denied them under national labor codes.
A few weeks ago Uruguay became the first country to ratify the new convention, and the Philippines is poised to become the second. These two ratifications will bring the treaty into legal effect next year.
Perhaps more significant, dozens of countries are reviewing and reforming their national laws and policies to strengthen protections for domestic workers. Singapore will require a day of rest for domestic workers, beginning in January 2013.
A proposed law in the United Arab Emirates would provide a weekly day off, annual leave and sick leave. Namibia is beginning a process of setting a minimum wage for domestic workers. Spain has introduced reforms to provide domestic workers with social security.
In the Philippines, domestic worker groups have campaigned for nearly 15 years for a national law providing labor protections. A comprehensive Domestic Workers Bill is finally close to adoption, ensuring domestic workers a minimum wage, regulation of work hours, social security, health insurance and written contracts. The proposed law is a significant victory for the country’s estimated 2 million domestic workers and will improve their lives and working conditions.
The pace of change is encouraging, but it is not fast enough.
New ILO data released on June 1 found that domestic workers make up one of the largest segments of the estimated 14.2 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labor for economic exploitation. Half of the world’s countries still do not impose a limit on hours of work by domestic workers. The result can be unrelenting 16-hour days for many women and girls.
Unscrupulous recruitment agencies impose exorbitant fees on women who migrate abroad for domestic work, sometimes forcing them to work for months without salary. Hidden in private homes, many domestic workers are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, with no recourse to complaint mechanisms.
Latifa finally left her abusive employer by finding a public phone. She called her family and asked to come home. Now, with the assistance of a non-governmental organization, she is back in school. I asked her if she thought it was a good idea for girls her age to do domestic work. “No,” she replied. “The work is very hard.”
A proposed law in Morocco would reinforce a prohibition on the employment in domestic work of girls as young as Latifa and extend key labor rights to older domestic workers, but it has not yet been adopted.
On Thursday, the annual International Labor Conference concluded in Geneva, with public pledges by governments including Belgium, Benin, and Mauritius to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention. Governments like these that are taking concrete steps to make domestic workers’ rights a reality should be applauded. Those that haven’t should act quickly to ratify the new convention and ensure that domestic workers enjoy the rights that most of us take for granted.
Jo Becker is the children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. She advocated for the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention and is writing a report on child domestic workers in Morocco.