Domestic Workers

  1. ILO Global Action Programme on Migrant Domestic Workers

At the onset of a care crisis, with the aging of the population, and continually increasing rates of female labour participation, families frequently turn to domestic workers to care for their homes, children, and aging relatives.

Domestic work is defined as “work performed in or for a household or households” (ILO Convention 189). Domestic work is therefore defined according to the workplace, which is the private household. Broadly speaking, domestic workers provide personal and household care. Occupations and tasks considered to be domestic work vary across countries: ; they may cook, clean, take care of children, the elderly and the disabled, attend to the garden or pets, or drive the family car. They may work part-time, full-time or on an hourly basis, and may live in the home of the employer or not.

According to this definition, the ILO estimates there are at least 67 million domestic workers over the age of 15 worldwide, 80% of which are women. About 17% of domestic workers are migrant workers. Historically and across a diverse range of countries, domestic workers from disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups have tended to provide care services to meet the needs of wealthier households.

To a large extent, it is thanks to the labour of domestic workers that other women have succeeded in entering the paid labour market in increasingly larger proportions and in breaking the glass ceiling. When women engage in paid work outside the home, they either have to reduce their rest and leisure time, enlist the help of partners or other family members or – if the family or woman can afford it – pay someone else to do the care work that they would normally do. Thus domestic workers’ contribution to economic growth is substantial, enabling an increase in dual-income families.

Domestic work is also an important source of income for women – as much as 14 per cent of female wage employment in Latin America and 11 per cent in Asia. By all estimates, the sector is poised to grow: according to UN estimates, The proportion of people aged 60 or above will multiply by 1.8 by 2050 and by 2.3 by 2100, as compared to 2015 (UN DESA, 2015). At the same time, multigenerational households are becoming less common, meaning more and more of the elderly live alone, or in institutions, where these are available and affordable. Studies have also found that people prefer home-based care over institutional care.

Despite their contributions to households and national economies, domestic work is situated at the low end of the care economy, working some of the longest hours, for very low wages. These conditions result in part from exclusion of domestic workers from labour and social rights in many countries, which effectively legitimizes discrimination of a female-dominated class of workers. Even when they are covered by the law, domestic workers suffer severe decent work deficits due to high levels of non-compliance, fostered in part by high levels of informality, status in migration, and low level of collective organization. Long term caregivers in particular work extremely long hours for very low pay. The toll on their health and well-being is clear, but often unrecognized in law and policy. This unequal situation reflects and perpetuates a deep-seated social perception that the unpaid care work that women do for their families, has little value to economies and societies.

In homes, workers, employers, and care-recipients all face challenges due to the lack of integrated policies and clear guidelines. Employers hire long-term caregivers for a variety of needs, from light support and companionship, to regular medical oversight. While these needs are sometimes met by publicly funded home health aides, in the absence of such policies, many households turn to workers in the informal economy because it is easier and more affordable. As a result, the ILO estimates some 50 million domestic workers are working in the informal economy, in which there is a concentration of decent work deficits.

Delivering quality care goes hand in hand with ensuring decent working conditions. Assuring decent work for domestic workers establishes the principle that domestic workers, like any other workers, are entitled to a minimum set of protections under labour law. The mere fact of regulating domestic work is an acknowledgement of the crucial social and economic contribution of care work. In turn, ensuring decent working conditions for domestic workers will contribute to reducing gender inequalities in the world of work while improving the quality of care received by households.