Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Legal scholar fights to protect domestic workers from exploitative conditions

Professor Adelle Blackett is the chief legal architect behind the International Labour Organization's first comprehensive standards offering protections and rights to more than 60 million domestic workers. She addresses why we urgently need to bring equality to the household workplace.

We urgently need to reform the household workplace, argues Professor Adelle Blackett

Domestic worker Fabiana Barbosa de Souza cooks rice at her house in Sampaio neighbourhood, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (January 2019). 'As the people who care for others, domestic workers are accustomed to not being really seen, not being really heard,' says legal scholar and advocate, Adelle Blackett. (AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on January 29, 2021.

One in every 25 women working in the world today is a domestic worker. They are nannies, cleaners, cooks and caregivers for the elderly. They are some of the world's most vulnerable workers whose employment has been made even more precarious because of the pandemic. 

"Due to COVID, they've lost their jobs; they have no source of income. [Domestic workers] are literally camping outside their respective embassies when their employers ended their employment contracts in the mix of the socio-economic downturn. So who cares for domestic workers?" asks Adelle Blackett.

Blackett is the Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development at McGill University. She was the principal legal architect behind the International Labour Organizations Convention 189 and its accompanying Recommendation No 201. These details point to large realities, as the treaty offers rights and protections to the 67 million domestic workers whose workplace is the household.

To date, 31 countries have ratified Convention 189. Canada is not yet one of them. 

In her book, Everyday Transgressions, Adelle Blackett tells the story behind the International Labour Organization's (ILO) work toward creating fundamental protections and rights to the millions of domestic workers labouring in other peoples' homes throughout the world. (Lysanne Larose/Cornell University Press)

In the 2020 Alice Cook-Lois Gray public lecture at Cornell University, professor Blackett shared the inner conflict of this labour citing an excerpt from Prière à la Lune — Prayer to the Moon — by Fatima Elayoubi, who is a domestic worker of Moroccan heritage now living in Paris. 

Many people do not understand what is art. I have always worked looking for the elegance in what I do. Even when I iron a shirt, I want to feel inside of me an aesthetic harmony. I iron shirts. I dust. I clean the world to admire the beauty and the cleanliness. This art to which I have applied myself nine hours each day, all these years. No one sees it. When I come back the next day, I commence to suffer yet again in my body and in my soul. I am a woman who uses her body as her work tool. Nothing else is left.

Professor Adelle Blackett spoke with IDEAS host, Nahlah Ayed.

Here is part of their conversation:

[They were] such powerful images that you presented from Fatima Elayoubi, who so poignantly sees her work as a form of art, but also uses her body as her work tool until nothing else is left.  What do you make of that dualism, the work as an art, but at the same time the body as a tool?

I think it's not too strong to say that it's haunted me throughout much of this work.  Wanting to give real meaning to the dignity and value and art that mostly racialized women who do this work attach to it. While at the same time not glossing over the tremendous toll that it takes on these women.

In preparing for this story, we heard all kinds of stories — like women or workers having their doors locked on them at night when they're sleeping, people who have had to give up their passports while they're doing their jobs.  How common is that?

Sadly, very common. It's common here and it's common in many parts of the world. And this is why it was so important to understand the roots of domestic work and to challenge some of those underlying assumptions. There's literally an assumption that the person comes and belongs to the family somehow. How could one think one could take a passport away from a worker just because the workplace becomes the household?

Mexican domestic worker Ignacia Ponciano prepares lunch at the house where she has worked for over 30 years in Mexico City (January 2019). There are over 67 million domestic workers worldwide — nannies, house-keepers, cooks and caregivers for the elderly — where 'the home ' is their workplace. (AFP via Getty Images)

In this moment of COVID, one of the challenges we are seeing is domestic workers is being locked in the house because the household decides that the domestic worker might be a vector of transmission if the domestic worker is allowed out.

So COVID has actually had an effect on the freedom of movement for some of these workers.  What else has it done to change people's lives?

In quite dramatic ways for many domestic workers and the International Labour Organization's (ILO) studies on this are quite shocking. Loss of employment has been crucial. So the reflex on confinement for some has simply been to say 'I don't want this work anymore. We can't have anybody coming into the household.' Or for households that have lost their sources of livelihood then this is one of the first things to go, so there's been a huge dimension linked to loss of employment — loss of livelihoods.

We know that there is a constant flow of people around the world often racialized, as you say: people of colour who are traveling purely for work. I'm curious whether that suddenly is now halted, or maybe they are going home?

Or trying to go home. Domestic workers are living on the streets. They're not repatriated. They are facing really dire circumstances. Some NGOs — including one based in Montreal — have been seeking donations to be able to facilitate repatriation. But it's a hugely problematic issue and it affects the domestic workers from the poorest countries who are least able to respond swiftly. So they're literally camping outside of embassies (in places like Lebanon).

You were instrumental in creating Convention 189 and its recommendations to improve the working standards of domestic workers.  What does it do?

The wonderful thing about the ILO's process is there's two years of negotiation and then one develops standards that are of two kinds — one kind is a convention, the binding part, addresses things like ensuring that domestic workers' broad human rights are respected. And that includes the freedom of association. They should be able to form unions, protection against forced labour, child labour, discrimination. There's minimum age protections in this and in particular also attention to stating 18 as a minimum — especially if there's any travel involved, protection against abuse and harassment and some very specific protections that should be found in contractual form or a written document, so a lot of attention to that.

Members of India's National Domestic Workers Movement from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) rally to demand the ratification of the 189th International Labour Organization (ILO) — a treaty offering rights and protections to the world's more than 67 million domestic workers. (Noah Seelam/AFP via Getty Images)

The convention also speaks to labour migration. So it doesn't say to states you must provide permanent residency but it does require certain kinds of attention to the job offer or the contract of employment and its enforceability, which has become a really important issue in many places. It requires domestic workers to be able to enter freely into an agreement as to whether or not they reside in the household of their employer and that's a really important piece in much of domestic work migration and many parts of the world domestic workers are formally required to live with their employer.

Adelle Blackett is the Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development at McGill University She's the author of Everyday Transgressions: Domestic Workers' Transnational Challenge to International Labour Law. She was the principal legal architect behind the International Labour Organizations Convention 189 and its accompanying Recommendation No 201.


* Q&A was edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Suzanne Dufresne.

Watch Adelle Blackett's 2020 Alice Cook-Lois Gray Distinguished Lecture

For more information:

Pinay Quebec 

Caregivers Action Centre

Migrants Workers Centre

Egna Legna Besidet

The Association for the Rights of Household 

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