The decade-long efforts to legislate decent working conditions for domestic labour globally are at last coming to fruition. The International Labour Organisation’s new global standard — Convention 189 — that seeks to regulate working conditions for millions of people employed in households and guarantee basic protection for them will enter into force next year. This follows the latest ratification of the Convention by the Philippines and a few months earlier by Uruguay. The provisions relating to reasonable working hours and weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours are of particular concern in the developing world, notoriously wanting in minimum safety measures for women workers. Given the peculiar characteristics of domestic work behind closed doors, monitoring and punishing violations can prove difficult. The Convention also incorporates stipulations to make the terms and conditions of employment explicit to workers, restrict in-kind payments and respect workers’ rights, including the right to association and collective bargaining. The effectiveness of these provisions would depend on the overall prospects of trade unions in the workplace generally, aided by a conducive political climate and a proactive judiciary. Significantly, but not surprisingly, stipulations on minimum wages are missing in the Convention. Notwithstanding this omission, the objectives entailed in the new standard could potentially alter the situation on the ground quite radically. Prevalent social attitudes on domestic work, that are at best paternalistic, should make way to a greater recognition of its status as an important economic activity.
When it comes to the situation in India, any attempt to regulate domestic work and streamline standards must surely be welcomed. Sadly, the Manmohan Singh government has not yet deemed it fit to ratify this path-breaking labour convention. Ironically, making the Convention part of domestic statute could strengthen some of the government’s steps in related areas. A case in point is the Cabinet’s approval to amend the law to completely abolish child labour in the country. The amendment would contribute to realising more fully the right to compulsory basic education for children. Similarly, regulating the conditions of domestic labour — an extremely laudable social objective in itself — would enormously augment the goal of expanding basic education, considering that large numbers of children are employed as household workers. Above all, according legal recognition to domestic work will complement the governments’ efforts to combat crimes against women and children.