Behind Institutional Diffusion: The Case of the I.L.O. Domestic Workers Convention in Latin America

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW2.3.04 (Tower Two)
Lorena Poblete, PIIRS, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ; CIS-CONICET/IDES, Buenos Aires, Argentina
In Latin America, paid domestic work is very prevalent. It constitutes nearly 40% of the worldwide total, and is one of the most generalized forms of labor for women, representing 26.6%. The majority of these workers are informal workers (90%); thus, labor rights don’t apply, and workers don’t have access to social protection (ILO, 2013).

 According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), this problem is due to the fact that existing regulation is not appropriate for this kind of activity. Most regulations are the products of the mid-50s or 60s, stemming from a context of industrial development. They were conceived principally to regulate the activity of domestic workers who lived in their employers’ homes or who worked full time in one home. These were the most common domestic work situations at that time. Today, however, since domestic work assumes different forms, this is no longer the case.

 In an attempt to achieve labor standards, the ILO approved a specific convention for domestic workers in 2011. This convention, C189, establishes some fundamental principles, such as freedom of association; the abolition of child and compulsory labor; and protection from abuse, harassment, violence, and discrimination.  The convention also includes labor and social rights, such as limited working hours, monthly pay, a minimum wage, daily and weekly rest periods, annual leave, probation periods, termination terms, and access to social security. One particularity of this convention is that a large number of worker unions and civil organizations were part of the process ending in the final version of C189 (Goldsmith, 2013). One might say that this convention was made from the bottom to the top. Even considering that the ILO is a tripartite organization, not all conventions result from workers participation. This particular feature is crucial to understand the way this convention spreads, especially in countries in which domestic workers unions are strongly developed.

 Until now, only seventeen countries have ratified C189, and most of them are Latin American. This convention is now in force in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay, and it will enter into force during 2015 in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Mexico have already begun the ratification process as well. In all these countries, new laws concerning domestic work were approved before C189 ratification, and even before this convention was sanctioned. These facts point out the relative importance of C189 ratification process concerning labor regulation reforms in Latin America, and also show us that the promotion of domestic workers labor and social rights clearly exceed C189 in itself.

 Thus, the main goal of this paper is to understand the complexity of C189 diffusion process. It seems that there are two different kind of diffusion process involved: one is the formal process of approval, ratification and enforcement of the ILO conventions and, the other is a more complex process in which the ILO (through ILO regional offices) function as an orchestrator (Abbott, If there are a vast literature about the first type of diffusion process, the second one is still not enough documented. Our contribution of the study of the influence of the ILO in local regulations will be related to the analysis of this second process.

Our hypothesis is that there are two configurations in which the ILO plays new roles in order to succeed the regulatory change. In the first case, the ILO (through regional offices) plays the orchestrator role, engaging different non-government actors in specific programs -as, for instance, "decent work program". In a logic described as “manage states” (Abbott, 2015), with the ILO technical support, these non-governmental organizations become an important influence on public opinion and legislators. In the second case, the ILO establishes a partnership with some specific government agencies (as ministers and secretaries) for supporting local governments goals, and doing so, it promote their own specific ones. For instance, promoting formal labor for all categories of workers, the ILO can influence the regulation of a particular kind of workers as domestic workers. In the two cases, the ILO attains their goals supporting the activities of some intermediaries: non-governmental and governmental actors.

Through the analysis of tree national cases (Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica), this paper seeks to understand how different modes of orchestration can be combined in a specific local context. Preliminaries analyses suggest that, notwithstanding the ILO regional offices constitution and their local involvement, the structure of labour market (specially domestic work sector), the existing labour regulations, the political agenda of the local governments, and, the strength of unions and social movements might shape the development of different types of orchestrations.

This paper is part of a broad research focusing on regulatory innovation in labour law, funding by Fung Global Fellow Program at Princeton International & Regional Studies (Princeton University).


• Abbott, K., J. Philipp Genschel, D. Snidal & B.Z. Ludwing-Maximilians (eds.) (2015) International Organizations as Orchestrators.Cambridge University Press.

• Goldsmith, M. (2013), “Los espacios internacionales de la participación política de las trabajadoras remuneradas del hogar”, Revista de Estudios Sociales,45, 233-246.

• ILO (2013) Domestic Workers across the world: global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection. Geneva, 146 p.