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At least 52 million domestic workers globally, many are women excluded from labor laws

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In this Nov. 25, 2012 photo, a maid cleans inside an apartment in Paseo Cayala, a nearly independent city on the edges of Guatemala City. The builders of Paseo Cayala say it is a livable, walkable development that offers housing for Guatemalans of a variety of incomes, though so far the cheapest apartments cost about 70 times the average Guatemalan's yearly wage. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)The Associated Press

At least 52.6 million people worldwide are employed as domestic workers, most of them women without adequate legal protection, the U.N.'s labor agency said Wednesday in its first global snapshot of the often invisible workforce that cares for other people's families and households.

The research by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization found that 83 percent of all the domestic workers were women, many of them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of their lack of knowledge of local languages and laws or because they are often paid a flat weekly or monthly fee that is not based on how many hours they work.

"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, 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 — with 30 percent completely excluded from all national labor laws.

The U.N. warned, however, that the tally represents what is probably a reliable minimum figure, based on 2010 data, and is likely to be tens of millions of people higher due to underreporting by 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.