UN agency sounds alarm over exploitation of millions of children in domestic labour

Young girl doing domestic work in Nepal. Photo: ILO/J. Maillard

12 June 2013 – With an estimated 10.5 million children worldwide working in people’s homes in hazardous and often slavery-like conditions, the United Nations labour agency today called for an end to child labour in domestic work and urged decent working conditions for adolescents who can be legally employed.

“There is no place and no excuse for child labour in domestic or any other form of work,” UN International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General, Guy Ryder, said in his speech in Geneva to mark World Day against Child Labour.

According to the latest figures in ILO’s report, Ending child labour in domestic work, released to coincide with the Day, of the 10.5 million underage workers, an estimated 6.5 million are child labourers aged between five and 14 years of age. More than 71 per cent are girls, some of whom work as a result of forced labour and trafficking.

Child labourers who work in the homes of a third party or employer, carry out tasks such as cleaning, ironing, cooking, gardening, collecting water, looking after other children and caring for the elderly.

ILO reports that these children are vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual violence and abusive working conditions, they are often isolated from their families, hidden from the public eye and become highly dependent on their employers. Many might end up being commercially sexually exploited.

“The situation of many child domestic workers not only constitutes a serious violation of child rights, but remains an obstacle to the achievement of many national and international development objectives,” said Constance Thomas, Director of the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

In addition to the children working under the legal age in their countries, ILO estimates that an additional 5 million children – defined as people under the age of 18 – are involved in paid or unpaid domestic work in the home of a third party or employer.

The relationship between the child and the employing family is often ambiguous, according to the report, “the child is working, but is not considered a worker, and; although the child lives in a family setting, she or he is not treated like a family member.”

One of the people interviewed for the report, 13-year-old Nadège, a child domestic worker in Cotonou, Benin, described the blurred relationship as follows: “When you are placed as a domestic in someone else’s home, an employer will not buy shoes for you. But if the employer decides to buy shoes for you, it means that you are part of the family.”

The familial and legal “care vacuum” created by this situation works against the interests of the child, ILO noted, by disguising an arrangement that might entail cruel working conditions and often masking violence and abuse.

The UN agency called on its Member States today to take appropriate measures to provide decent working conditions to adolescents of legal working age employed in domestic work.

This includes limiting their hours of work, prohibiting night work; restricting work that is excessively demanding, and taking measures to ensure effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.

“We urge ILO member States to ratify and ensure effective implementation of the ILO’s Conventions on child labour and on domestic work,” Mr. Ryder said highlighting Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201.

Convention No. 189 also states that the minimum age for domestic workers should be consistent with the provisions of the ILO’s child labour treaties. These require that children should not work below the legal minimum age for employment or work, and that young workers above the minimum age should be employed in safe conditions.

In addition, the Convention identifies domestic work as an important source of employment, especially for millions of women.

“Domestic workers of all ages are increasingly performing a vital task in many economies. We need to ensure a new respect for their rights and to empower domestic workers and their representative organisations,” said Mr. Thomas.

The UN report also presses for Governments to ratify and implement ILO Convention 138, concerning the minimum age for admission to employment and ILO Convention 182, on the worst forms of child labour.

Earlier this month, ILO released its World Report on Child Labour, estimating that some 215 million children worldwide work.

As part of Government efforts to fight child labour, the report stressed that the extension of social protection, in line with the UN agency’s Recommendation on social protection floors delineated in 2011, should form a key part of national strategies to tackle the scourge.

In particular, the floors would guarantee basic income in the form of social transfers in cash or kind, such as pensions, child benefits, employment guarantees and services for the unemployed and working poor, while providing universal access to essential affordable social services in health, water and sanitation, education, food, housing, and other services defined according to national priorities.

For its part, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also drew attention to the millions of children engaged in some form of hazardous or exploitative work, usually at the expense of their health and education, and overall wellbeing and development.

In a press release, the agency also notes that there are many children doing work unsuitable for anyone under 18. In the worst forms of child labour, children are exposed to health hazards and to physical danger, their development is threatened, and they are subjected to exploitation.

“We understand that many children work to support their families,” said Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s global head of child protection. “However when children are forced into the most dangerous forms of labour, when they then miss school, when they are at risk and their health and well-being are impaired, this is unacceptable.”

“Actions must be taken to address this situation, including preventing it from happening in the first place,” she said.

UNICEF says the most lasting work must be carried out at the level of Governments. The organization supports the ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers, adopted in 2011, which particularly targets women and girls in domestic service, and congratulated Uruguay, Philippines and Mauritius for being the first countries to ratify the Convention. Another 20 countries have started national dialogues on the issue of domestic work around the process of adoption of the ILO Convention.


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