Cook-Gray lecturer: Domestic workers need more protections

An International Labor Organization (ILO) standard, created in 2011 to help protect the world’s 67 million domestic workers, has encouraged incremental change in some corners of the globe, McGill University professor Adelle Blackett said in the ILR School’s annual Cook-Gray Lecture, Oct. 15.

The event – named in memory of ILR faculty members Alice Hanson Cook and Lois Spier Gray – was held on Zoom. It drew an audience of 135.

“There’s change. It’s slow. It’s deeply imperfect,” said Blackett, professor of law and the Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labor Law and Development at McGill.

McGill University law professor Adelle Blackett delivered the ILR School’s annual Cook-Gray Lecture on Oct. 15.

She served as the ILO’s lead expert in establishing decent work standards for domestic workers worldwide. ILO Convention No. 189, as it’s known, was the first transnational protocol for the millions of workers, most of them women, who labor in other people’s homes.

In Canada, for instance, household workers can in theory choose where they live, rather than being required by law to live in their employer’s residence. In Persian Gulf states, payment mechanisms have been standardized in ways that make it possible for third parties to verify workers have been paid.

Even in some countries that didn’t ratify the ILO standard, progress has been made, she said, but more is needed.

“There is so much that needs to be done,” Blackett said. “How you actually make working conditions decent for domestic workers is a huge task and will require much comparative insight, sharing, commitment and each country has a lot to learn.”

Some advocates and workers, she said, are pushing for global social protections for domestic workers, who were historically excluded from basic labor laws.

 “To have some control, to work in community and to challenge isolation, this is a moment for creativity and for regulatory experimentation,” Blackett said. “There’s movement on thinking through the cooperative model for domestic workers. It’s encouraging.”

Blackett was referring to a network of worker-owned cooperatives in New York City, where domestic workers have achieved better working conditions by forming worker-owned cooperatives and negotiating collectively with employers.

COVID-19, though, has stalled innovation.

“In a moment like this, attentions turn elsewhere,” said Blackett, noting that 55 million domestic workers are unemployed due to the pandemic and struggling to survive.

During the Q&A, Blackett was asked how individuals can support reform. The professor was emphatic: “Vote. Vote. Vote. The rest of the world thanks you. Vote.”

Blackett teaches and conducts research in the areas of labor and employment law, trade regulation, law and development, critical race theory and slavery and the law. She is the author of “Everyday Transgressions: Domestic Workers’ Transnational Challenge to International Labor Law” (2019, Cornell University Press).

The Cook-Gray Lecture is organized by Rosemary Batt, the Alice Hanson Cook Professor of Women and Work, and Pamela Tolbert, the Lois S. Gray Professor of ILR and Social Sciences. Its mission is to advance the social justice and equality visions of professors Cook and Gray.

This year’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Inequality and the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.

Mary Catt is communications director of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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