GENEVA // At least 52.6 million people worldwide are employed as domestic workers, most of them women without adequate legal protection, the UN's labour agency said yesterday.
The research by the International Labour Organisation was the agency's first global snapshot of the often invisible workforce that cares for other people's families and households. It found that 83 per cent of all domestic workers were women, many of them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of their lack of knowledge of local languages and laws or because they are often paid a flat weekly or monthly fee that is not based on how many hours they work.
"From caring for children, to caring for the elderly and persons with disabilities, to performing a wide range of household tasks, domestic workers are an indispensable part of the social fabric," Sandra Polaski, ILO's deputy director general, said.
The domestic workers amount to 3.6 per cent of all wage earners globally, and 7.5 per cent of all working women, the report showed, stressing that the percentages were far higher in some regions.
In the Middle East, for instance, a third of all working women are domestic workers, while the number for Latin America and the Caribbean is one in four.
South and Central America have seen the steepest rise in the number of domestic workers, jumping from 10.4 million in 1995 to 19.6 million in 2010.
The report said the surge was in large part linked to the rising number of women entering the workforce in a region often lacking other options for child and elderly care.
The agency also found that 90 per cent of domestic workers are not covered by general labour protection to the same extent as workers in the mainstream economy. Thirty per cent are completely excluded from all national labour laws, as is the case for nearly all domestic workers in the Middle East.
The UN warned, however, that the tally represents what is probably a reliable minimum figure, based on 2010 data, and is likely to be tens of millions of people higher because of under-reporting by countries.
The report excluded domestic workers below the age of 15 and considered children. These were last estimated to be 7.4 million in 2008.
"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," Ms Polaski said.
And while women domestic workers often allow others to balance their work and family lives, they often struggle to do the same. A third have no right to maternity leave or benefits, according to the report.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse