U.S. Activists Help Global Domestic Workers’ Movement as U.S. Government Drags its Feet

U.S. activists were instrumental to the passage of international domestic workers' treaty—which the U.S. is unlikely to ratify in the near future.

U.S. activists were instrumental to the passage of international domestic workers' treaty—which the U.S. is unlikely to ratify in the near future. Business deal with global map via Shutterstock

In April, Bolivia became the fifth nation in the world to ratify the Domestic Workers’ Convention, a treaty passed at the 2011 International Labor Organization (ILO) conference in Geneva. Known as Convention 189, the treaty outlines recommended labor and wage protections for the estimated 50 to 100 million women globally who toil inside private homes, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly, often working in abusive environments and earning far less than a living wage.

Bolivia has now joined Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, and Italy in ratifying the convention. Absent from this list is the United States. This is unsurprising given this nation’s tendency to ignore international human rights treaties. But in the case of the ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention, the United States’ inaction is noteworthy, since U.S. activists were instrumental to the convention’s passage at the ILO conference. Rewire recently spoke with Elizabeth Tang, international coordinator of the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN), about this dissonance.

“Although we know the U.S. government is never interested in ratifying international standards, especially international labor standards, U.S. activists are heavily supportive of our work,” Tang said.

In Tang’s view, leaders of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a U.S. advocacy group, came to the 2011 ILO conference holding more clout than domestic workers’ organizers from any other nation, and this was crucial to ensuring that the domestic workers’ convention received its due attention.

Critically, the AFL-CIO included domestic workers within its ILO delegation. This is unusual compared to other nations. The majority of domestic workers from countries around the world who were present at the conference were there as observers; most are not granted membership in formal trade union organizations.

“Generally, trade union delegates feel they know everything, and they didn’t see need to include domestic workers in the delegation,” Tang told Rewire. “But mainstream unions in the United States, like the AFL-CIO, were open to including domestic workers, and NDWA also had capacity to make the convention a priority.”

The effective work at the ILO conference was a direct result of organizing in the United States. Over the past decade, U.S. domestic workers have cultivated a strong relationship with mainstream labor groups. The New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights passed in 2010, in part because the NDWA engaged with union locals throughout the state. This percolated upward in union leadership: Just before the ILO convention, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance signed a partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO outlining a “framework for the groups to partner around issues of organizing, winning rights for excluded workers and building long-term relationships.” Excluded workers refer to laborers who are systemically unprotected by labor laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

At the 2011 ILO conference, the AFL-CIO included in its ILO delegation for the first time a domestic worker, Juana Flores, who is a member of NDWA and co-director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas.

“Juana Flores and other NDWA advocates were able to inform the delegates as to why this convention is important, and their role was very crucial. It’s not typical to have that type of access,” Tang said.

NDWA and the AFL-CIO also co-authored an open letter encouraging other nations’ trade unions to collaborate with domestic worker groups and similarly ensure the involvement of domestic workers themselves in the ILO negotiations.

Yet here at home, any movement to ratify the convention has stalled. In August 2011, just weeks after the passage of the treaty, New York Assemblyman Keith Wright, the chief sponsor of New York’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and a passionate advocate for this movement, sent a letter to the Obama administration urging U.S. ratification. “The United States should lead the way in putting this important convention into force by adopting it as a treaty [through a vote by the Senate]. … Legislation would then be created and introduced to reflect the Convention,” he wrote. (It is unclear if the administration responded to his letter.)

“There is currently no active campaign [to ratify] the ILO Domestic Workers’ Convention in the United States,” Luna Ranjit, executive director of Adhikaar, told Rewire. Adhikaar is an NDWA member group based in New York that advocates for Nepali domestic workers. “But we are using the treaty to support our messages for our state and federal advocacy efforts. We use these new international standards to advocate with legislators and the public for the state-level bill of rights.”

There are now pending domestic workers’ bills of rights in five states: Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, and California. (California has twice passed a domestic workers’ bill of rights, but the first was vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and the second was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.)

In addition to pushing these state bills, NDWA advocates are still actively collaborating with IDWN to improve conditions for domestic workers globally. As U.S. policymaking bodies slowly plod along in improving working conditions for this slice of the workforce, U.S. domestic workers’ activists remain far ahead of the curve.