Domestic workers’ rights move closer to becoming reality worldwide

As the International Labour Organization Convention 189 on domestic work turns two, a look at how Governments, unions and the private sector, supported by UN Women, are working towards ensuring that this female-dominated profession is regulated and worker’s rights are protected.

Cross-posted from UN Women

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are 53-100 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 per cent of whom are women.[1] They represent 4 to 10 per cent of the labour force in developing countries and about 2 per cent in developed countries.[2] Their work is an important contribution to economic and social development. Still, 40 per cent of countries worldwide have no form of regulation of any kind for domestic workers.[3]

Domestic workers rejoice after the results of a vote on the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference, in Geneva, on 16 June 2011. Photo credit: International Labour Organization

Around the world, UN Women is working with Governments, domestic workers’ unions and the private sector to promote the rights of domestic workers –majority of who work as domestic helps in households-and ensure that domestic work is both regulated and covered by social protection. This includes supporting the Global Forum on Migration and Development and promoting the ratification of ILO Convention 189 on domestic work – a landmark international treaty adopted on 16 June 2011, which will come into force on 5 September 2013.

A snapshot of our work around the globe…


“Due to conflict, I was displaced, jobless and forced to go to Israel to work to feed and educate my children,” says 40-year-old Kalpana Giri, a Care Giver from Kathmandu in the remote district of Bajura, western Nepal. “I faced violence, verbal abuse, my mobility was restricted by the recruiting agency, and there was less payment of salary, so I returned within five months.”

Kalpana returned to Nepal, where she found POURAKHI, a network for returned women migrant workers, the majority of whom are domestic workers, which was created and is supported by UN Women. Kalpana became a community mobilizer in one of their pilot reintegration programmes.

Kalpana Giri speaks with women migrant workers during a field visit to Satungal, Nepal. Photo credit: UN Women

She helped train 77 migrant workers returnees like herself to become small-scale entrepreneurs in vegetable farming, poultry raising, tailoring and trading in tea, among others. She became a leader and successfully mobilized the local development budget in the village of Satungal to support a safe migration awareness programme and entrepreneurship training for returnee women migrant workers.

“After facing so many problems, after facing violence, I became a local leader,” says Kalpana. “Today I feel very empowered. I am a role model for my village.”

UN Women’s advocacy and engagement has a long history in Nepal and it has yielded concrete results, such as the Pourakhi network which supports migrant women workers, legislation that has cemented rights, and regulations that provide protection for the country’s 2.7 million migrant workers.

In Nepal, UN Women’s support and advocacy for the migrant women workers has been longstanding, with technical support during the drafting of Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act, as well as financial support for the intensive 72 rounds of consultations held with diverse stakeholders from 2005 to 2007. The Act was adopted by the Government in 2007 and Regulation was developed in 2008. The legislation establishes the right to non-discrimination, ensures equal opportunities for women and men working abroad, and socioeconomic protection for migrant workers and their families.

Such measures now even extend beyond Nepal’s borders, with shelters for returned migrants established, both in Nepal and all major destinations for Nepali women workers. Nepali Embassies in Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide safe houses for distressed women and support for their rescue and repatriation.

In related efforts, six labour attachés are also currently working in Nepali Embassies in Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Malaysia. The Nepalese Government is also regulating the recruitment and placement of domestic workers in four countries to ensure that foreign employment agencies are certified and approved by Nepali diplomatic missions there. Nepal’s Foreign Employment Promotion Board even reimburses women migrant workers for their pre-departure orientation expenses.

UN Women also supported preparation of the Foreign Employment Policy, adopted in 2012, which includes a separate section focusing on the rights of women domestic workers.

The organization has helped the Board develop a domestic work manual, standard operating procedures for its skills training centers, and a handbook on safe migration to help local government officials design their own programmes and assist migrant families. The Entity was supported the establishment of a mechanism to provide access to justice for cheated migrant workers, including for those who are undocumented, and trained returned women migrant workers as paralegals. These paralegals have helped recover unpaid wages for women migrant workers, tracked women who have lost contact with families and handled cases of physical abuse.

Nepali returned women migrant workers join a national rally organized by the Nepali Government and the National Network for Safe Migration on International Migrants Day, 18 December, 2012. Photo credit: UN Women

Across the Asia-Pacific region, domestic workers are working to achieve their rights. UN Women has been active at a regional level in the Asia-Pacific region as well, organizing forums and conferences to review current international human rights tools and labour standards, as well as share best practices and lessons learned. Among other events, UN Women jointly organized a “Regional Conference on Human Rights Instruments, International Labour Standards and Women Migrant Workers’ Rights,” with the ILO and three ministries of the Cambodian Government from 4-5 September 2012, in Phnom Penh.

In Indonesia, UN Women supported the formation of women migrant worker’s networks across six districts and strengthened the capacity of existing organizations to influence migration policy and claim entitlements. This includes technical and financial support to advocate with local governments for legislation, such as that adopted in the city of Blitar, East Java, in 2008. UN Women has also raised awareness at the community level and worked with partners to ensure gender-sensitive provisions in the national law governing migration and the protection of domestic workers’ rights.

In the Philippines, UN Women galvanized advocacy for the Batas Kasambahay Bill, which was signed into a path-breaking national law on 18 January 2013. It provides labour and social protection such as: a written contract in a language understood by both employee and employer, regularly paid minimum wages and registration of employment, maximum daily working hours with provisions for overtime pay, workers’ coverage under the social security system, including health insurance, and protection against abuse and violence.

To read more about our work in Latin America and the Caribbean, click here»

To read more about our work in Europe and Central Asia, click here»

To read more about our work in Africa and the Arab States, click here»


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Briefing kit: Domestic Workers Count Too: Implementing Protections for Domestic Workers

Supporting women workers towards a safer migration journey in Nepal

Domestic workers gain equal rights in Brazil

Exploited domestic workers in Cameroon organize themselves to defend their rights

Mona Saad: An Egyptian domestic worker’s journey to leadership

#AskUNWomen Twitter chat on the protection of domestic workers

Domestic workers rap at a regional preparatory meeting leading up to the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development 2013

Global Forum on Migration and Development focuses on the protection of migrant domestic workers

[1] ILO (2011) Global and Regional Estimates on Domestic Workers (Policy Brief No. 4) p. 6. Available at:

[2] ILO data cited in Domestic Workers Count Too: Implementing Protections for Domestic Workers (p. 4).

[3] While 40 per cent of 73 countries studied worldwide have no form of regulation of any kind for domestic work, labour laws covering domestic workers have been introduced and implemented in several countries over the years, such as: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, France, Hong Kong, SAR, Jordan, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay, some U.S. states and others. ibid (p. 5)