U.N. Agency Watches Out For Domestic Workers

The International Labor Organization, the U.N. agency that deals with labor issues, has released a report on the growing number of domestic workers around the globe, and their lack of legal and worker protections. There are almost 53 million domestic workers and 83 percent are women. They have often been ignored by policy makers.

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We now have a better picture of people who are always present but not often noticed in upscale households around the world. The United Nations International Labor Organization, or ILO, compiled its first ever report on domestic workers. The report finds there are almost 53 million domestic workers in the world. The overwhelming majority are women and at least half have no legal rights or worker protections at all. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: People who clean houses, take care of children, care for the elderly - domestic workers - have rarely been on anyone's policy agenda. The ILO started working on this after they adopted a domestic worker's convention in 2011. The treaty, which enters into force in a year, seeks to establish reasonable working hours, wages, and freedom of association, among other goals. Martin Oelz works in Geneva with the ILO as a legal specialist on working conditions.

MARTIN OELZ: Domestic workers are often not covered by labor laws. They are not part of the policymaking in a range of areas, including care issues.

ADLER: Oelz says domestic workers are often unaware that they have rights even in countries where they do. He cited South Africa where one country where real progress has been made. Domestic workers were part of the anti-apartheid struggle. In the new South Africa there are minimum wage rules. The report found the most serious problems affect live-in domestics, who may be in a house 24 hours a day.

OELZ: We have also reports from human rights organizations that freedom of movement is actually restricted. So people are forced to stay in the house that they work for.

ADLER: And if they are immigrants, lack of language or knowledge of the country's laws is an additional barrier. In parts of the world, like some Arab countries, most domestic workers are immigrants. One fascinating statistic in the report is an unprecedented increase in the number of domestic workers since the mid-1990s - about 19 million. Once every science fiction reader thought housework would be a thing of the past. But the need is actually growing, says Oelz.

OELZ: We are having more need for care work in the home, because more women joined the labor force. And the increasing aging of populations plays also a role and leads us to a conclusion that domestic work will continue to be a growing sector.

ADLER: Other factors: countries with emerging economies have more middle-class households, and increasing inequality in some countries is leading more of the poor to seek this work. Oelz says getting statistics on domestic workers was itself a bit dicey. The ILO looked at 117 nations but had to use the statistical agencies of those countries.

OELZ: Our estimate is only as good as the national data is on which the estimate is based.

ADLER: But he says that the estimates are probably low and conservative, given the number of domestic workers who do not report their work or are in countries illegally. But beginning to get a sense of numbers, he says, is valuable because domestic workers often fall outside of national labor statistics and are not considered by policymakers who need numbers to affect policy change. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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