The United Nations says there are 53 million people employed worldwide as nannies, cleaners, butlers, servants and housekeepers, and many are being exploited.

The International Labour Organization, a UN body tasked with monitoring labour conditions through the world, says there are now 53 million domestic workers on Earth. The figure has jumped by 19 million from the mid-1990s until today, the ILO says — an increase of more than 50 per cent.

The agency acknowledges that the figure likely understates the true number of household workers, because the large number of people who change countries to work as nannies and cleaners are often work under the table and are never recorded in official data.

Some 83 per cent of domestic workers are women, the ILO says.

Global problem

Even the official figure of 53 million speaks to how large a segment of the labour force they have become in some areas. Household workers now account for 7.5 per cent of salaried employment for women on earth, "and a far greater share in some regions, particularly Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean," the ILO says.

And it's a segment of the economy that's going unchecked and as such is open to abuse, the agency says.

"Domestic workers are frequently expected to work longer hours than other workers and in many countries do not have the same rights to weekly rest that are enjoyed by other workers," the ILO said in a report Wednesday.

The ILO report estimates that almost half of all domestic workers in the world aren't entitled to any sort of leave or rest period under the terms of their employment. Almost 30 per cent are excluded from basic labour laws where they live, and a third of them have no protection or entitlement to maternity leave in the event they choose to have a child.

And barely more than half of them earn enough to meet the legal minimum wage standards in the region they live.

"Combined with the lack of rights, the extreme dependency on an employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse," the ILO's deputy director general Sandra Polaski said.

Canadian view

The ILO's report on conditions elsewhere on the globe jibes with what Canadian labour and immigration experts say is happening here.

University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin says Canadian law is not the worst in terms of protecting domestic workers here. But their experiences here are likely similar to what's happening elsewhere.

"They're vulnerable for a few reasons," she said in an interview. "They are often compelled to live in their employer's home, which creates the impression that they are always available to work."

And there are tales of female domestic workers being victims of sexual harassment. "They are quite often, again seen as 'available' by their employers on that score as well," Macklin said.

Unlike other countries, under Canadian law a domestic worker's immigration status is not tied to working with a single employer. But they are bound to work only in certain types of work, for at least two years, Macklin notes. "As you can imagine that puts them in positions where they are fearful of complaining," she said.

'They're disadvantaged, because they are [less confident] with the language' —Law professor Audrey Macklin

And so-called "recruiters" who are paid by employers to find domestic workers are another problem area. By law, they are supposed to get paid by the employer. But Macklin says stories of recruiters who charge domestic workers a fee for facilitating that job connection are rampant.

"Employers and recruiters are typically voters," Macklin says. "On paper, Canada's laws are not bad, but it's a question of implementation."

Live-in domestic workers are especially vulnerable, the ILO says, because they are typically paid a flat rate per week or month, regardless of hours worked, so they are often made to work at all hours.

The precarious legal status of migrant domestic workers and their lack of knowledge of the local language and laws, make them especially vulnerable to abusive practices, such as physical and sexual violence, psychological abuse, non-payment of wages, debt bondage and abusive living and working conditions, the ILO says.

"They're disadvantaged, because they are [less confident] with the language, and they don't know the system," Macklin said. "That can often exacerbate an imbalance between the employer and the worker."