In June 2019, I attended the annual International Labour Conference (ILC) convened by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland. This year was particularly special, as it marked the 100th anniversary of the ILO. Through the establishment of international labor standards, the ILO has played a key – and often overlooked – role around the world to advance social justice and decent work for all.
From 2008-2011, I had the privilege of working for the ILO as an expert on international standard setting on decent work for domestic workers. Accordingly, I attended this year’s conference with a sense of pride as I looked back at the ILO’s accomplishments in its first century. I have also followed with a sense of urgency in this troubled global moment, knowing the intensity of the challenges that face those who consider the link affirmed in 1919 between social justice and world peace as critical for the ILO’s next century.
In April 2019, Cornell University Press released my book Everyday Transgressions: Domestic Workers’ Transnational Challenge to International Labor Law. In it, I recount the story behind the ILO’s Decent Work for Domestic Workers’ Convention No. 189, and its accompanying Recommendation No. 201, which created the first comprehensive international standards to extend protections and rights to domestic workers laboring in homes around the world. This is of course a major accomplishment, worthy of celebration, particularly during the ILO’s centenary. However, my book makes clear that this accomplishment is rooted in something much larger than the ILO. Emanating long before the creation of the ILO, my book tells the story of the agency and resistance of domestic workers throughout the world. These workers continue to dismantle a global legacy of subordination and servitude that operates in racialized and gendered ways on women’s bodies.
At the centenary ILC, I share and celebrate the numerous triumphs of domestic workers highlighted in my book, from resistance to live in work to active involvement at the ILO to make Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201 a reality. Many are in Geneva again, militating for new international labour standards on violence at work. I celebrate the agency of domestic workers who have transgressed and reshaped the often invisible and deeply unjust law of the household workplace, intent on implementing more equitable conditions. Despite being one of the most marginalized groups, domestic workers have engaged in widespread transnational social movements to transform their world of work and implement the labour standards they rightly deserve. This merits celebration.
Despite these numerous achievements, there remains much to be done as we embark into the ILO’s next century. At the ILC I echo the calls to action highlighted in my book. Everyday Transgressions calls on actors to think transnationally about regulating decent work for domestic workers. This requires rethinking temporary migration programs, dismantling structural inequities that lead historically marginalized groups to predominate in domestic work, and reinvigorating the ILO to enable concerned actors to address these themes.
Regulating domestic work also has critical insights for the field of labor law more generally. I recently concluded a live, webcast course on the Transnational Futures of International Labour Law with the following words: “We are in a moment where we have to unsettle, profoundly unsettle, some of the starting understandings of our field, and some of the starting asymmetries that may have given us a sense of solidarity in the past but so deeply exclude the working people of the world. We need to unsettle, some would say decolonize, before we can begin to imagine how a second centenary for social justice toward peace can be a reality.”
While the ILO’s second century will not be easy, domestic workers’ social movements offer important lessons on how to build transnational solidarities and marshal international labor law to rebuild and extend social justice to all workers.
Adelle Blackett, Ad. E., is Professor of Law and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development at the Faculty of Law, McGill University. She was the lead expert on standard setting for decent work for domestic workers at the ILO.