Domestic workers are workers employed by private households within national boundaries or overseas to do house chores and care work. They constitute an integral part of the labour force worldwide. According to ILO data, the estimates are 4-10% of the labour force in developing countries and about 2% of the workforce in developed countries.
More importantly this sector is expected to grow in many developed and middle-income countries. This is anchored in the interaction of several factors – changing demographic trends marked by falling birth rates, static or declining workforces and growing ageing populations, combined with other trends. These include: women’s increasing participation in the workforce especially in more developed or middle income countries because of higher education levels or to plug labour shortages; the lack of a culture of shared domestic responsibility between men and women; inadequate state provision of affordable care services; the reluctance of nationals to take on low-paid, low-skilled and low-status domestic jobs in many richer countries of employment; and the desire to maintain a certain lifestyle and social status. This creates a “care crisis” of sorts. For the middle class and rich, the recruitment of domestic workers is an affordable solution. These are usually women, seen as readily available, needy, inexpensive, pliable, and naturally imbued with nurturing and home-care abilities, from poorer contexts. They may be nationals migrating from rural to urban areas within middle income or developing countries, or women who have moved across national or regional boundaries. In Spain, for example, which has the highest number of domestic workers in the European Union, over 90% of those registered in 2009 were women and 61% were non-nationals, mainly from developing countries
in Latin America. A 2010 study found that in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay, 89%-96% of migrant women are domestic workers.
Although domestic work contributes to renewing and sustaining life and is critically linked to social and economic development, it is not regulated in many contexts. This is because it is invisible and conducted within the private space of the home – not defined as a “workplace”. It also carries the low value of women’s unpaid housework, not defined as work, because it is not perceived as producing value. Domestic work is in fact seen as a “labour of love” or part of women’s innate attributes, needing no special skill. The special bonds of attachment that may develop
between employers, domestic workers, and family members being cared for, complicates an understanding of domestic work as work that needs regulation.
Not only does a lack of regulation of this sector devalue the economic and social contribution of domestic work to development, it exacerbates abuse and exploitation of workers. This includes: contract substitution, poor wages, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, very long hours of work, no break periods or rest days, restrictions on freedom of movement and association, no access to collective bargaining, inadequate food and accommodation, including lack of privacy, sexual and gender-based violence.
However, while 40% of 73 countries studied worldwide have no form of regulation of any kind for domestic workers, labour laws covering domestic workers have been introduced and implemented in several countries over the years. These include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, France, Hong Kong, SAR, Jordan, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay, some US states and others. These initiatives are in line with international human rights standards, including the recently adopted ILO Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, 2011; the General Comment on Migrant Domestic Workers by the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants and Members of their Families (CMW), 2010; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and its General Recommendation No 26. on Women Migrant Workers (including domestic workers), adopted by the Cedaw Committee in 2008. This briefing kit makes promising national practice and international human rights standards important points of departure. It explores through personal testimonies, the significance of regulating and protecting domestic work from the point of view of domestic workers, trade unions, governments and employers, in some of these countries. But it goes beyond “making the case”, to also demonstrating how standards to promote and protect the rights of domestic workers, exemplified in the international human rights system and analysis of good national practice, can actually be applied at the country level and up scaled.