The ILO's Domestic Workers Convention 189 needed ratification by two ILO member states. Bolivia, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay have ratified the convention. It came into force on September 5.
Several others have initiated the process of ratification of the treaty, including the UAE, Costa Rica and Germany.
The UAE voted in favour of convention 189 and recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers at a conference in Geneva in June 2011. A draft UAE law to improve rights for domestic workers is now awaiting implementation.
The international treaty cannot be enforced in a country unless that nation enshrines it in its own law.
The treaty promises domestic workers clearly defined conditions of employment before they start work, a monthly salary paid in cash, at least a day off every week and freedom of association and collective bargaining.
It also requires governments to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints and stop employers deducting recruitment fees from maids' wages.
The Philippines was the second country after Uruguay to have ratified the measure, a move seen by the Philippine ambassador to the UAE, Grace Princesa, as “providing a greater leverage for the government's mandate to protect migrant workers, especially women workers”.
“We hope that more countries of destination will ratify it to enable them to craft national laws on domestic workers,” she said.
There are more than 600,000 Filipinos in the UAE. Of those, about 25,000 are household workers.
Salman Al Farisi, the Indonesian ambassador to the UAE, said his country, an ILO member state, has yet to ratify the convention.
“I know that we are in the process of ratifying it,” he said. “I don't think that we'll ignore such an important treaty.”
Of the 90,000 Indonesians in the UAE, 60 per cent are domestic staff. The most common complaints among them include being overworked, underpaid or unpaid for months and various forms of mistreatment.
A two-stage ratification process must be completed before the convention comes into force.
First, governments must verify to what extent their existing laws meet the convention's requirements. If necessary “they must then work to align themselves with the convention”, said Manuela Tomei, director of the ILO's working conditions and equality department. This may involve new legislation or amendments to existing law.
“We would like more and more labour-receiving countries to ratify the convention as most of the labour-sending countries already have signed the ILO convention,” Bangladeshi ambassador Muhammad Imran said.
Most of the 800,000 Bangladeshis in the UAE work in the construction and domestic sectors.
Dipak Adhikari, deputy chief at the Nepalese embassy, said the convention would “ensure workers enjoy similar rights that other people do”.
The 160,000 Nepalese workers in the UAE predominantly work in construction, hospitality, cleaning and domestic sectors.
“The ratification by any host country will definitely help the legal protection in favour of domestic workers,” Mr Adhikari said.
MEG Samaraweera, the first secretary of labour at the Sri Lankan embassy in Abu Dhabi, said it was a “landmark and historical movement in favour of domestic workers”.
“Truly, the domestic workers' lives are very hard and, when we compare them with other sectors, it seems a discrimination as they are not covered by any laws,” he said.
Sixty per cent of the 300,000 Sri Lankans in the UAE are domestic workers.
There are at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide, not including child domestic workers, and this number is increasing.
Harsh working conditions, labour exploitation and human rights abuses are major problems facing domestic workers globally, according to an ILO study.
Lack of legal protection increases domestic workers' vulnerability and makes it difficult for them to seek remedies. As a result, they are often paid less than workers in comparable occupations and work longer hours, the study said.
A former housemaid and now teacher's assistant in Dubai, Mary Ann Salonga, 45, said: “It will not make much of a difference.
“I know of many who work from 6am to 1am the next day but are paid Dh800 ... others are abused physically and psychologically.”
Since 2006, the Philippine government has required its citizens to be paid at least US$400 (Dh1,469) a month for domestic work. But that rule is often flouted.
The Ministry of Labour was not available to comment.
Updated: September 12, 2013 04:00 AM