The most popular dream jobs might be astronaut, pop star, and helicopter pilot, but one of the most popular jobs in reality -- in terms of sheer numbers -- is a lot less glamorous. According to the United Nations, at least 52.6 million people worldwide are employed as domestic workers, and the number is likely tens of millions higher.
That's 60 percent more than 15 years ago, which may well make it the fastest-growing occupation in the world.
The U.N.'s International Labor Organization in Geneva conducted the survey in the wake of a June 2011 convention, which urged countries to treat domestic workers the same as other workers in terms of basic labor protections. Currently, only 10 percent of domestic workers around the world are covered by the same labor laws on issues such as hours, mandatory rest periods and annual leave, and 30 percent aren't covered by national labor laws at all.
The Associated Press reports:
The research found that 83 percent of all domestic workers were women, many of them vulnerable to exploitation, physical and sexual violence and other abuses because of their lack of knowledge of local languages and laws or because they are often paid a flat fee that does not reflect hours worked.
This United States is no exception, according to the first large-scale national survey of domestic workers in the U.S., published in November by an advocacy group, the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The report found that around a quarter of domestic workers laboring on American soil are paid below their state's minimum wage, and the same number said that their work prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep in the last week.
Hidden behind picket fences and welcome mats, however, the toil of the domestic worker is often invisible. Feminist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich made this point with characteristic flourish in her 2003 essay "Maid to Order":
Someone who has no qualms about purchasing rugs woven by child-slaves in India, or coffee picked by ruined peasants in Guatemala, might still hesitate to tell dinner guests that, surprisingly enough, his or her lovely home doubles as a sweatshop during the day.
The U.N. survey, which covered 117 countries and territories, found that the majority of domestic workers were not, in fact, in developed countries in the West. Twenty-one million worked in Asia and the Pacific, while another 20 million labored in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It's a vast and complex problem that can't simply be solved with new laws, the ILO's Deputy-Director General Sandra Polaski told reporters Wednesday. Those laws would have to somehow be enforced. Importantly, domestic workers would need to be educated about their rights, so that they could demand them.
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