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The Invisible Workforce: Ending the exploitation of domestic workers once and for all

It is hard to go a month without reading a harrowing story about migrant domestic workers somewhere in the world grappling with exploitative situations. Take for instance the case of Anna Santos who came from the Philippines to the UK to work as a domestic worker, but upon arrival found out that she was paid just £200 a week for working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A combination of blind spots in legislation, a weak application of existing laws and a culture that undervalues domestic work has left migrant domestic workers vulnerable and at the margins of society. As a result, they often face low pay, gruelling hours and exploitative working conditions.  

The plight of domestic workers is a scourge on advanced economies, but by taking a multi-faceted approach, we can end the exploitation of domestic workers once and for all.

Understanding the exploitation of domestic workers

Writing in their book, Global woman : nannies, maids and sex workers in the new economy, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild suggest that in the era of globalisation, the demand for domestic workers has boomed, due to the feminisation of migration flows and the growing care deficit gripping advanced economies. Care systems are being squeezed as populations age and women’s labour force participation grows, creating more domestic work but with less time to complete it. Coupled with decades of austerity that have reduced state-provided care, families are increasingly turning to market-led solutions.

Reproductive labour – the work associated with caregiving and housework - has historically not been deemed as a proper job meaning the reproductive labour undertaken by domestic workers is undervalued by society. Meanwhile, domestic workers have been left outside the scope of employment laws and are poorly remunerated. Indeed, just 6% of domestic workers worldwide are covered by social security laws.

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly exposed the vulnerability of these workers. The ILO estimates that up to 50% of domestic workers in Latin America and the Caribbean lost their jobs at the start of the crisis in 2020. Those that remained employed were at a higher risk of exposure to the virus and faced salary reductions of 50% when hours were cut. Many workers regularly reported increased workloads, restrictions on free time, instances of physical abuse and an inability to leave their employer’s home.

Due to the isolated nature of domestic work, employees are often unable to seek help. Moreover, almost 8 in 10 domestic workers are employed informally, meaning they are not covered by existing labour laws and social protections.

The role of governments

Where governments have not done so already, they should ratify the ILO’s Convention 189, which came into force in September 2013. To date, just 36 countries have ratified the convention. Ratification would entitle domestic workers to the same employment rights as other workers, including social security, rest days, overtime compensation and the right to receive a minimum wage.

Effective implementation of C189 has proven to be a challenge since both employees and employers have a limited knowledge of workers' rights, whilst domestic work is typically performed in private homes. Nevertheless, countries that have implemented C189 should strengthen implementation by promoting measures to guarantee compliance. Some countries like Singapore have implemented fines of up to $10,000 and 12 months imprisonment for employers who fail to remunerate or abuse their domestic workers.

Government policy should urgently focus on expanding social protection floors to domestic workers so that they are able to access unemployment benefits and essential healthcare. Spain has set an example by recently amending its existing social security laws to guarantee unemployment support for domestic workers. Other countries should follow Spain’s lead.

However, existing social protection policies often do not cover informal workers. With this in mind, governments should implement policy to formalise domestic workers so that they can qualify for social protection measures. Efforts aimed at formalising domestic work should ensure equality in labour and social rights for domestic workers, mandatory registration with social security, and strict enforcement of legal regulations.

The role of domestic workers

Domestic workers have long been advocating for the acknowledgement of their valuable labour and for the protection of their rights as workers. Yet, given the isolation and long hours associated with their jobs, domestic workers have historically struggled to unionise themselves. Despite these challenges, the COVID-19 crisis seemed to galvanise workers to become more connected in their efforts to end the exploitation of domestic workers.

One example of this was the #CuidaAQuienTeCuida (Care For Who Cares For You) social media campaign during the pandemic. The campaign, called on employers to continue paying their domestic workers during lockdowns and to “do the right thing”. The initiative also encouraged workers and their employers to establish a contract that clearly outlined pay and working conditions.

Increasing awareness among workers about their existing rights is also essential. Previously, domestic workers’ organisations have run initiatives to promote consciousness amongst workers, including the Caring Hands Workers’ Association which provides workers’ rights training programmes for its members. Their impressive work has helped to prepare hundreds of Latin American migrant women with the skills to defend their rights and achieve greater financial autonomy.

The role of employers

Despite high-profile campaigns like #CuidaAQuienTeCuida, there was little adhesion of employers to the demands of the campaign to respect workers’ rights and livelihoods thereafter. Part of the problem is that employers often do not understand they have legal responsibilities towards their employees.

Ignorance is never an excuse however, and employers must make themselves aware of domestic workers’ rights and the responsibilities they have as an employer. Engaging with domestic workers’ organisations is one method of achieving this. For instance, in Costa Rica, the National Institute for Women (INAMU) launched a campaign to inform employers about their rights and responsibilities. Initiatives like this provide employers with details regarding the labour rights of domestic workers and help them to engage in negotiations to secure appropriate employment agreements that provide a fair wage and safe working conditions.

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