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The ILO treaty to protect domestic workers could put a puncture in Jet Bussemaker’s wheel, says Heleen Mees.

The disaster in a factory in Bangladesh caused by the illegal installation of generators on the roof shows the importance of the work done by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency made up of representatives of national governments and employers’ and workers’ organisations. It is the ILO’s job to promote decent working conditions around the world.


In 2011 the ILO passed a treaty to protect domestic workers. It’s a landmark treaty because in some countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Arab world, it isn’t unusual for domestic workers to be treated like slaves. Sexual abuse, beatings and restricting workers’ freedom of movement are everyday occurrences.

The treaty, signed but not yet ratified by the Netherlands, states there can be no difference between domestic workers and other workers. If the Netherlands ratifies the treaty the current rule, which states that, subject to certain circumstances, domestic workers are not considered to be officially employed, will no longer apply.

If the rule is abolished, employers will have to pay tax on wages and premiums for their hired help. What is more, in case of illness or incapacity for work they are legally obliged to continue payment and make re-integration efforts. The hourly rate for hired help would quickly double to €20 an hour.

Economic sense

That doesn’t exactly chime with education minister Bussemaker’s call for women to enter the workplace. It only makes economic sense to go out to work and hire someone to do the housework for €20 an hour if you earn upwards of €80,000 a year before taxes. That’s only 1% of all working women in the Netherlands.

When I talked to a spokesperson for the macro-economic planning agency CPB about the lack of a personal services market in the Netherlands a few years ago, she didn’t bat an eylid when she advised me to give the baby sitter, gardener or painter cash in hand. Those who do not wish to do this for reasons of principle or because they can’t afford to be seen to do it are going to have to dig deeper.

Social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher has installed the Kalsbeek committee to look at the issue. Let’s hope the commission is pro-active and extends the rule for domestic workers to include lots of other forms of personal services. If the riots in Stockholm make one thing clear it’s that the welfare state is anything but perfect.

Heleen Mees is an economist, lawyer and publicist. She teaches at New York University.

This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad.


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