The number of domestic workers worldwide has surged by 60 per cent since 1995 to more than 52 million, but despite their growing numbers most are still deprived of basic rights, the UN's labour agency said today.
"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, deputy director-general of the International Labour Organisation told reporters as she unveiled the agency's first report on the often invisible workforce.
Polaski said the majority of domestic workers, 83 per cent of whom are women, are "often exploited beyond what would be tolerated for other workers."
They are forced to work longer hours and frequently are not allowed days off.
Their numbers surged from 33.2 million in 1995 to 52.6 million in 2010, according to the ILO report, which is based on official statistics from 117 countries.
That amounts to 3.6 per cent of all wage earners globally, and 7.5 per cent of all working women, the report showed, stressing that the percentages were far higher in some regions.
In the Middle East, for instance, a full third of all working women are domestic workers, while the number for Latin America and the Caribbean is one in four.
South and Central America are the regions that have seen the steepest hike in the number of domestic workers over the 15-year period, jumping from 10.4 million in 1995 to 19.6 million in 2010.
The report said the surge was in large part linked to the rising number of women entering the workforce in a region often lacking other options for child and elderly care.
The UN agency stressed that its tally probably underestimated the real numbers, and pointed out that it did not include some 7.4 million child domestic workers under the age of 15.
It acknowledged that the real number of domestic workers in the world could be closer to 100 million, since such work often goes unreported, "And the demand for domestic care workers will only grow in the future as societies age," Polaski said.
The report follows the adoption in June 2011 of a landmark domestic workers treaty aimed at ensuring decent working conditions and pay for such employees worldwide.
There is still a way to go, however, with domestic workers' rights especially lagging in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.