In June 2010, International Labour Organisation (ILO) members will begin formal discussions on a possible new global instrument to ensure decent work for domestic workers. Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch and Save the Children have initiated the following statement in order to call upon ILO members to pay special attention to the vulnerability of child domestic workers around the world, and to adopt a binding Convention that ensures special protection for children.
They invite national, regional, and international NGOs from around the world to join in signing the statement.
The deadline for signing the call is 5 May.
Sign the petition here.
Child domestic workers – who are they?
Millions of children1 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.2
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.
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 7.00am or after 9.00pm.
* 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 well-being 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.