Rescued from domestic work by National Domestic Workers Movement of Mumbai, this girl is now able to go to school and be a child once more. Photo: Ouseph S P / ILO
The scandal of 10 million child workers in domestic service
Simrin Singh is Senior Specialist on Child Labour in the ILO’s Decent Work Technical Support Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand. This post sets out why the ILO has made domestic work the focus of the annual World Day Against Child Labour this 12 June.
In a hot and bustling Jakarta suburb, a group of young girls – and one boy – charmed me with their songs, dances, messages, and laughter. Like healthy teenagers around the world, they could sing and dance to music from Justin Bieber and Bollywood, text with their friends and family, chatter about trends, their dreams and aspirations. These were clearly the lucky ones. They had a childhood, finally. They had a place to come to in their free time, interact with their peers, learn, and unleash their creative energies. They sang loud and proud “I will reach my dreams.”
An estimated 10.5 million children worldwide – most of them under age – are working as domestic workers in people’s homes, in hazardous and sometimes slavery-like conditions. Six and a half million of these child labourers are aged between five and 14 years old. More than 71% are girls.
The place I refer to above was a learning centre for child domestic workers operated by a long time ILO partner NGO Mitra Imadei, with the full support of local municipal authorities and neighbours. It took years to convince authorities and employers that child labour in domestic work is not acceptable and that these children needed care, protection and an opportunity to learn, so that they could enjoy the fruits of “decent work” as adults. The bright, healthy and confident faces at the learning centre were a testament to the fact that the approach has paid off.
However, meeting with these children was also a stark reminder that millions of children – many of them girls – face profound, hidden exploitation in domestic work. These children endure long, irregular hours of work and arduous work conditions, are deprived of schooling, and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Sleeping on the kitchen floor, enduring beatings and verbal abuse, sub-standard food, no wages, and not being allowed to visit their families are all-too- familiar stories. The gruelling work and conditions endured in their younger years coupled with little to no education also limits their path to and aspirations for decent work when they are older.
Deeply entrenched attitudes and cultural values on the nature of this work and gender roles also pose significant obstacles. Domestic workers are commonly not considered employees, and consequently many employers do not recognize the existence of obligations that typically arise from an employment relationship. Girls often face a double burden of combining long hours of household chores with domestic work outside the household.
This year, the World Day against Child Labour on 12 June will focus attention on the theme of “No to Child Labour in Domestic Work.” The choice is timely, given the recent adoption of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that recognizes domestic work as work for those of legal working age, with special protections for those under 18. Worldwide, there are millions of child domestic labourers, mostly girls. Many of these children are below minimum age for employment while those that are above minimum age find themselves largely unprotected by laws geared towards formal sector employment. Their right to education remains but a distant dream. It is time to take action to protect these vulnerable child domestic labourers and let them enjoy their right to education!
On World Day against Child Labour 2013 let us all play a part. Please join the ILO in encouraging governments to reform their laws and policies to ensure the elimination of child labour in domestic work and decent, protected working conditions for young domestic workers who have reached the legal working age. Please support the campaign to encourage worldwide ratification and implementation of ILO Convention No. 189 on decent work for domestic workers (not yet ratified by the British Government), along with the ILO’s child labour conventions (which the UK has ratified). Please insist on the provision of free, compulsory and quality education for all girls and boys at least to the minimum age of employment as well as targeted non-formal and second chance education opportunities for child domestic workers.