GENEVA -- At least 52.6 million people worldwide are employed as domestic workers, most of them women vulnerable to abuse and without adequate legal protection, the U.N. said Wednesday in its first snapshot of the often invisible workforce that cares for other people's families and households.
The sum is roughly equivalent to all the workers employed in countries such as Mexico, Nigeria or Vietnam, said the U.N.'s International Labor Organization in Geneva. It completed the survey in conjunction with an international accord for equal treatment between domestic and general workers that will come into force in September.
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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.
"From caring for children, to caring for elderly and persons with disabilities, to performing a wide range of household tasks, domestic workers are an indispensable part of the social fabric," Sandra Polaski, the ILO's deputy director-general, told reporters in Geneva.
The agency also found that 90 percent of the domestic workers are not covered by general labor protections to the same extent as workers in the mainstream economy. Some 30 percent were completely excluded from all national labor laws.
The U.N. warned that the number of domestic workers is likely to be tens of millions higher than the official figure of 52.6 million due to underreporting by countries and a lack of information.
"Our estimates are conservative because the official national statistics that we rely on do not capture the phenomenon in full," Polaski said. "Our estimates provide a reliable minimum count, therefore."
The survey included statistics only from 117 nations and territories. It found that Asia and Latin America are by far the two regions with the most domestic workers. Asia and the Pacific had at least 21.4 million as of 2010, while Latin American and the Caribbean had at least 19.6 million. The rest were spread among Africa, the Middle East and developed countries.
The report excluded those domestic workers who are below the age of 15 and are considered to be children, and were last estimated to number at 7.4 million in 2008.
Just putting new laws on the books "is certainly not sufficient" to ensure that domestic workers are protected, Polaski said. Among the factors needed to make those laws work, she said, are more education for the domestic workers and stronger enforcement of the laws.
An ILO legal specialist, Martin Oelz, said there was evidence that domestic workers were, in fact, better protected once a nation adopted legislation to protect them, as happened in recent years in South Africa and Brazil.