Domestic Workers

There are approximately 6.6 million domestic workers over the age of 15 employed in the Arab States, representing around 8.7 per cent of the total number of domestic workers globally. The sector represents a significant proportion of employment in the region, accounting for 12.3 per cent of total employment (in comparison to 2.3 globally). The significance of this sector is even more stark in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where the sector accounts for between a fifth and a quarter of the labour force in most countries. While men outnumber women as domestic workers in the region (representing 63.4 per cent of the sector); domestic work is a very important sector for female employment – with domestic workers representing 32.4 per cent of female employment (and 34.6 percent of female employees) in the Arab States.

The majority of migrant domestic workers in the Arab States originate from Asian and African countries such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Ethiopia. These workers play a crucial role in the global economy and society, and the remittances they send home contribute to the welfare of their households.

In many Arab States, migrant domestic workers are excluded from national labour legislation, and are tied to their employers or the kafeel (sponsor) through a restrictive sponsorship system known as kafala. As a result, employers wield considerable power over their working and living conditions. Moreover, if an employer fails to renew the work and residence permit or if migrant domestic workers leave their employment without the employer’s permission, they fall into irregular status and become subject to detention and deportation.
The informal, unregulated and isolated nature of their work renders migrant domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and forced labour. Often, they are denied many basic working rights related to remuneration, working hours, periods of rest, retention of their identity documents, leave and freedom of association outside the households they work in.

The ILO Response

In June 2011, delegates at the 100th International Labour Conference adopted a historic international standard to improve the working conditions of domestic workers across the world. The ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)  and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201  stipulate that domestic workers should have the same fundamental labour rights as any other worker: reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payments, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, rights in the recruitment process, and respect for fundamental rights at work, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The ILO strategy on domestic work  serves as a unifying framework for coherent and integrated approaches and encompasses actions at global, regional, and country levels in five broad areas to:
  • Build and strengthen national institutions;
  • Facilitate the organization and representation of domestic workers and their employers;
  • Support the ratification and implementation of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)  and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201 ;
  • Raise awareness and advocate for domestic workers’ rights;
  • Build up the knowledge base on domestic work; and
  • Exchange experiences between countries.
The ILO Strategy envisages support for countries that are committed to take action that improves the protection and working conditions of domestic workers, regardless of whether these involve ratifying and implementing the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the Domestic Workers Recommendation No. 201 in the near future. The strategy also recognizes that substantive change in the lives of domestic workers requires building up of national capacities and institutions, as well as the long and complex process of changing social perceptions and attitudes surrounding domestic work and workers.

Focus Areas in the Arab States

The ILO works with governments, workers, employers and civil society in countries of origin and destination to improve protection of the rights of domestic workers as well as to prevent them from being trafficked or forced into labour. Accordingly, the ILO’s activities include:ILO’s projects focusing on domestic work include:
  • Work in Freedom Programme (Phase II), funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, focuses on fair recruitment and decent work for women migrant workers, including domestic workers, in South Asia and the Middle East.
  • The FAIRWAY Programme, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, seeks to address the interlinked structural, behavioural, and practical barriers to improved labour migration, particularly in sectors such as the domestic work sector, and works across multiple countries of destination in the Arab States.