Cape Town – Laws are "urgently" needed to give greater protection to domestic workers, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said in its latest report on the state of domestic workers worldwide.
In the report Domestic Workers Across the World, the ILO said the very nature of their work in private homes makes domestic workers less visible than other workers, and therefore more vulnerable to abusive practices.
The report released on Wednesday showed significant growth in the sector in the 15 years from 1995 to 2010, with the number of people employed increasing by almost 20 million to 52.6 million.
In 2010 domestic workers, 80% of whom are women, accounted for 1.7% of global employment.
Despite this, many domestic workers are still not protected by laws that regulate working time, grant a minimum income or provide maternity protection, according to the report.
It estimates that only about 10% of all domestic workers, about 5.3 million people, are covered by labour laws to the same degree as other workers.
About 30% have no legal protection at all, the report said.
The report however acknowledges that many countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the industrialised world have already extended the same minimum protection which applies to workers generally to domestic workers.
South Africa, for example, already regulates working times and respective hourly, weekly and monthly minimum wage rates, the report noted.
The South African government last year announced a pay rise for all domestic workers with effect from December 1 2012. However, the SA Domestic Service and Allied Workers' Union accused the state of letting down domestic workers by not ratifying Convention 189 of the ILO.
The convention advocates standardised working conditions, including minimum wages, rest hours, and leave for domestic workers.
The report said the right to maternity protection is a key area of concern.
“Women domestic workers are not entitled to maternity leave and associated maternity cash benefits. This poses a substantial obstacle for women domestic workers who wish to combine work with their own family responsibilities,” said the ILO.
In addition to the lack of maternity benefits, the report highlights that there are no legal limits on weekly working hours for over half of the world's domestic workers, 45% are not guaranteed any weekly rest period and almost 50% have no minimum wage.
South Africa, with more than 1.1 million domestic workers working for private households in 2010, is the biggest employer of domestic workers in southern Africa.
The majority of workers are concentrated in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, according to the report.Employers should grant realistic increases
The sector was also the third-largest employer for women in 2010, employing about 15.5% of all women workers.
Employers from all races hire domestic workers.
Although the government sets minimum wages and working hours, employers should also ensure they pay their workers a fair wage, said Dennis George, general secretary of the Federation of Unions of SA.
George said employers should discuss realistic increases linked to the rising cost of living with their workers, as the minimum wage set by the government was only a guideline.
Yendor Felgate, CEO of Emergence Growth Services, said the company's research into why so many employers fail to legalise their domestic service arrangements shows this is due to ignorance.
“While most employers are keen to do the right thing, few are aware that that their two-day-a-week domestic worker qualifies as an employee," said Felgate.
“Ultimately, it will be joint actions taken at the national level by governments, trade unions and employers that will bring decent work to the millions of domestic workers across the world,” said the ILO.