New protection for domestic workers' rights

A new Convention on rights for domestic workers has been adopted by the International Labour Organisation. Domestic workers are one of the least protected groups in Ireland, and it is hoped that this measure will vastly improve their working conditions. By Bernard O'Rourke.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), at its latest meeting in Geneva has adopted a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers which will set international standards to protect the rights of domestic workers worldwide. 


According to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), domestic work is an under-regulated, underpaid and undervalued sector, in which many workers suffer daily abuse and harassment from their employers. The sector has some of the highest incidences of forced labour and modern day slavery, in addition to being known for some of the most shocking situations of child labour. They describe the Convention on Domestic Work for Domestic Workers as a "milestone in the 63-year long struggle to secure the rights of this highly vulnerable group of workers".

In Ireland, a survey conducted by the Domestic Workers’ Action Group (DWAG) in 2010 found that:

  • 40% of domestic workers surveyed do not have an employment contract
  • 38% are paid under the minimum wage (with severe cases as low as €2 per hour)
  • 42% do not receive payslips
  • Two thirds of those surveyed experienced exploitations as a domestic worker in Ireland
  • 30% work Sundays and Bank holidays without extra pay or a day off.
  • 44% raised a complaint with their employer about their unfair treatment and long working hours but their concern was ignored and nothing changed.

Supported by the MRCI, DWAG has been campaigning for the rights and dignity of domestic workers in Ireland since 2004. The DWAG has led numerous campaigns calling for a strong rights-based ILO Convention. Their most recent campaign was launched last March to coincide with International Women’s Day, and called directly on the ILO to introduce these measures.

Mariaam Bhatti of the DWAG has praised the new ILO convention, saying: "Finally, we have official recognition by the international community of domestic workers as workers, just like any others. It gives us the dignity and respect we have long deserved and will go a long way towards ending the abuse and exploitation that is so prevalent in this sector."

The Convention establishes the right of domestic workers to be informed, in a manner they can understand, of what the terms and conditions of their employment are; what the work they need to carry out is; how long they are expected to work; and how much, when and in what manner will they be paid. It also establishes limits to the proportion of remuneration that can be paid in kind, and provides for a weekly rest period of at least 24 consecutive hours.

For migrant domestic workers the Convention requires that they be provided with a written job offer or contract of employment before crossing the boundaries to take up the new job in the country of employment. Member States are also requested to take measures geared towards affording domestic workers minimum protections in respect of social security, including maternity benefits, on par with other categories of workers.

Aoife Smith, Coordinator of the DWAG, points out that "while the adoption of the Convention is positive news for domestic workers”, it will “not improve their conditions overnight...The international standards have been set but we will need to continue to lobby the government to ensure that national legislation reflects the provisions stipulated in the Convention."

SIPTU Divisional Organiser, John King, is calling on the Government to ratify the Convention as a priority, and to extend to these workers full working rights and conditions of employment no less favourable than other workers in this country. “Domestic Workers are employed in isolated and vulnerable positions and ratifying this treaty to give legal effect to their status of worker, which builds on the Labour Relations Commission Code of Practice in Ireland, is the right thing to do and will be supported by all right minded people and organisations,” he says.