This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Labour rights

Domestic workers in Europe falling through the loopholes

Many domestic workers in Europe do not enjoy as much legal protection as other workers. ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers – which will come into force in a year’s time – offers a chance to improve the lives of the millions of people who work in this profession.

Analysis | 24 October 2012
GENEVA (ILO News) – Coring is a 59 year-old domestic worker from the Philippines living in the Netherlands. She recently lost her job because she wanted to take some days off and go on holidays.

“My employers said: ‘We already pay you a salary and you do not pay any taxes, why should you go on holiday on top of that?’" she explains*.

Coring’s case is particularly difficult because she is an undocumented worker. But even domestic workers in a regular situation have problems being recognized as such.

While there are many laws covering domestic workers in Europe, there are still some gaps in the legislation and compliance tends to be weak.

Many domestic workers may be afraid to contact us, as they are illegal migrants or working in the hidden economy."
“Labour inspectors can only use existing labour laws, but these are not always adapted to the specificities of domestic work,” says John Kelly, regional manager at the Irish National Employment Rights Authority, the agency in charge of labour inspection in Ireland.

Non-compliance has to do with the fact that domestic work is seldom seen as a real form of employment. On top of that, access to private homes is restricted and few domestic workers are willing to openly denounce their employers. As a result, most European labour inspectorates have not focussed on the domestic work sector.

But according to Kelly, the main challenge remains that many domestic workers in Europe are in the informal economy. “We have been trained to detect human trafficking. However, it is hard to identify cases because many domestic workers may be afraid to contact us, as they are illegal migrants or working in the hidden economy,” he explains.

“This is a major obstacle for labour inspectors to prevent and punish abuses,” says Dutch union organizer representative Rebeca Pabon. “Why would undocumented domestic workers contact a labour inspector if they know they will be deported, even before their labour rights are recognized?” she asks.

From informal to formal work

Official data fails to capture the real extent of the domestic work sector in Europe, which largely falls within the informal economy. For example, Germany’s Statistical Office says there are around 700,000 domestic workers in the country. But local trade unions believe that over 2.4 million German households employ a domestic worker.

The demand is even higher because of the ageing of the population. Due to the difficult economic situation, there are growing numbers of Eastern European workers coming to Western Europe to look after elderly people.

“Informing people about their rights and duties is essential”, says Kelly, from the Irish National Employment Rights Authority. “It often happens that employers fail to keep a written record of working time, or do not consider the time spent at night next to a sick person as proper working time.”

Bringing domestic workers to the formal economy would better protect them against such abuses.

Some European countries, like France and Belgium, have set up legislation to facilitate the legal hiring of domestic workers. In Belgium, the “titre service” programme allows domestic workers to have a formal job while the cost for employer is partly paid by the government through subsidies. This makes domestic services more affordable and increases formal employment.

“Clearly this has a cost for the government”, explains Michel Aseglio, head of the agency in charge of controlling social laws in Belgium. “But the state immediately gets back part of the investment by raising more taxes.”

ILO Convention 189 can make a difference

“Such schemes seem to go into the right direction,” says Dutch union organizer Rebeca Pabon. But she worries that people will find more loopholes to bring “cheap labour” into Europe.

ILO Convention 189
Domestic workers who care for families and households must have the same basic labour rights as other workers. These rights include:

  • Reasonable working hours,
  • Weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours,
  • A limit on in-kind payment,
  • Clear information on terms and conditions of employment,
  • Respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
“The au pair system that provides young people with an opportunity to come and learn a language while working for a family can seem appealing at first. However, it has increasingly become a way for families to compensate for the lack of public structure for child care,” she says.

“Establishing clearer rules to employ domestic workers and providing them with a real status is key to improving their situation,” explains Martin Oelz, legal specialist on working conditions at the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

“We believe that ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers will help give recognition and better protection to a profession that remains mostly invisible today. Domestic workers deserve to be seen and treated as real workers,” he concludes.

* Interview provided by the FNV Bondgenoten domestic worker union in Amsterdam.