June 17, 2011 -- On a trip to her native Philippines 10 years ago, Gloria Edwards, now a U.S. resident, approached a mother of eight and offered her a chance to make a better life for her children. With promises of a U.S. visa and a well-paying job in the United States, Edwards convinced the impoverished woman to leave her family and travel halfway the world to work for Edwards' family.
As it turned out, the job in Maryland paid $50 a month, the visa was forged and the working conditions were miserable. For 13 or more hours a day, seven days a week for 10 years, Edwards and her husband, Alfred, forced the woman to cook, clean, iron, garden for them and their neighbors, and give nightly massages to Alfred's mother. They took away her passport,and threatened to shoot her if she ran away.
The Filipino mother finally escaped, and on June 6, Gloria and Alfred Edwards were indicted for conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude, conspiracy to harbor an alien and harboring a domestic worker. If convicted, each could land a prison sentence of up to 50 years and fines of up to $250,000.
In hopes of preventing cases like this one, the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, passed a set of international standards -- the Convention on Domestic Workers -- Thursday aimed at protecting the rights of domestic workers around the world.
"Perhaps it will add more force for Maryland to prevent that from happening," said Amelita King Dejardin, the chief technical adviser for the ILO's Program on Domestic Workers.
Domestic workers -- which includes housekeepers, nannies and chauffeurs -- make up 3.6 percent of total wage employment and 7.5 percent of women employees worldwide. Yet in countries that have minimum wage regulations for other workers, 21.5 million domestic workers are not covered, the ILO report said.
The United States is home to at least 2.5 million domestic workers, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The Convention on Domestic Workers, which is essentially an international treaty that must be ratified by member countries, includes the right to at least one full day of rest per week, clear terms and conditions of employment, and collective bargaining. It also places limits on working hours for people under the age of 18, the number of hours workers can be "on call" and host of other rights for domestic workers.
"If it is broadly ratified, then it sets an international standard that people can go to that country and point out problems and try to hold them accountable," said Adam Greene, the vice president for labor affairs and corporate responsibility at the U.S.Council for International Business, which represents the U.S. business community at the ILO conference every year.
"But there is zero chance that the U.S. will ever ratify this," Greene said, because U.S. labor laws are for the most part regulated by the states, and this treaty would create a new set of federal regulations regarding domestic work. Greene said ILO conventions can only be ratified by the U.S. Senate if the conventions do not change existing U.S. law. The U.S. has ratified only two of the ILO's 189 conventions, he said.
While there is little chance the ILO convention will be adopted at the national level, Dejardin said the hope is that it would inspire legislation at the state level.
"Because of this, there will be more public attention," she said. "Hopefully, the passage of this convention will help raise greater awareness among families and among local governments to pay attention to this."
The importance of this convention is to bring the plight of domestic workers into the national spotlight, not necessarily changing U.S. laws, said Ana Avendano, the assistant to the president at the AFL-CIO, who also participated in the ILO conference. In many parts of the world, domestic workers are explicitly excluded from labor laws and standards, she said.
"What happens to many workers in most cases is already illegal," Avendano said. "When these workers complain about their conditions, now people are going to listen"
There are no federal laws to protect America's estimated 2.5 million domestic workers, said Jill Shenker, the field director for National Domestic Workers Alliance. New York is the only state that has enacted a domestic workers bill of rights, which went into effect in November 2010 and provided a guidepost for the ILOs convention. California is currently debating similar legislation.
For at least 53 million people around the globe who are older than 15, domestic work is their main form of employment, according to the ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Program.
"If all domestic workers worked in one country," according to the report, "this country would be the 10th largest employer worldwide."