Published in June 2021
Making decent work a reality for domestic workers
Domestic workers provide essential services to millions of households around the world. They are also vital to the care economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed both their enormous contribution to societies as well as their vulnerabilities.
How much progress has been made in improving their protection in the ten years since the adoption of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) in 2011? And what more must be done to ensure decent work becomes a reality for domestic workers?
Find out more in this InfoStory and in the new global report, Making decent work a reality for domestic workers: Progress and prospects ten years after the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189).
How many domestic workers are there in the world today, and who are they?
Around the world, there are 75.6 million domestic workers aged 15 or over. The vast majority are women, but men make up a quarter of the sector, and are usually engaged in different kind of jobs than women.
How do we define domestic work? The Domestic Workers Convention, adopted with overwhelming support by the International Labour Conference in 2011, defines domestic work as work performed in or for a household or households, within an employment relationship and on an occupational basis.
Domestic work can involve a diversity of tasks, but the defining characteristic is that the work takes place in or for a private household. This includes live-in and live-out domestic workers, those working on a casual or hourly basis, and those working through or for a service provider.
Domestic work and the on-demand economy
Domestic workers are increasingly hired through service providers, including digital platforms. The number of such platforms in the sector rose eightfold in a decade, from 28 in 2010 to 224 in 2020.
Often considered as self-employed, even in cases where their work is supervised and under a dependency relationship, workers engaged in digital labour platforms tend to lack labour and social protection.
How much progress has been made since Convention No. 189’s adoption?
The Domestic Workers Convention and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 201) recognized the economic and social value of domestic work and were a call for action to address important decent work deficits in the sector.
By adopting these two international standards in 2011, the International Labour Conference sent a clear message: Domestic workers, like other workers, have the right to decent working and living conditions.
Making decent work a reality for domestic workers requires legal protection, as well as the effective implementation of those laws. While progress has been made in extending legal protection, important gaps remain, both in law and in practice.
Are domestic workers protected by the law?
More laws and policies now cover domestic workers thanks to ten years of efforts by governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations. Changes have resulted in higher rates of coverage in the areas of working time, wages, social security, maternity leave and maternity cash benefits.
When such laws and policies have been adopted, these have tended to ensure equal treatment with workers generally.
Despite the progress made, important legal coverage gaps remain: Many domestic workers do not enjoy any legal protection, and others are only entitled to rights that are less favourable than those enjoyed by other workers.
The most success has come in the area of working time. There has only been a small percentage increase in domestic workers entitled to maternity leave, maternity cash benefits, payment in kind and minimum wages on an equal footing with other workers.
From rights to reality: What do working conditions of domestic workers really look like?
While the extent of legal coverage has improved over the last ten years, data on the actual working conditions of domestic workers suggests that, for many, decent work has not yet become a reality.
Occupational safety and health
Despite common perceptions, private households are workplaces, and as such, they have associated occupational safety and health risks. Domestic workers are commonly exposed to chemical, ergonomic, physical, psychosocial and biological hazards, especially given the diversity of the tasks they perform.
Low awareness of these risks, lack of legal coverage, and the difficulties of inspecting private homes make domestic workers more vulnerable.
Violence and harassment
Domestic workers are also especially vulnerable to violence and harassment, since they work behind closed doors, in isolation, are often from already marginalized groups, and have limited power within the employment relationship.
They commonly experience economic, psychological, physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Other types of violence and harassment they might experience include bullying, coercion, violations of privacy and withholding of wages.
The adoption of ILO Convention No. 190 and Recommendation No. 206 is highly relevant for domestic workers, as it recognizes the right to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.
The large extent of informality makes domestic workers more vulnerable
The share of informal employment among domestic workers is twice that of other employees. Evidence shows that decent work deficits are more pronounced among informal domestic workers. This high rate of informality (81.2%) highlights domestic workers’ increased vulnerability to poor working conditions and lack of access to social protection.
Formal employment implies that domestic workers are not only covered by labour and social security laws, but also that those laws are effectively implemented and enforced in practice. Making decent work a reality for domestic workers therefore requires, first, the extension of labour and social security laws providing adequate protection to domestic workers, and second, the implementation of those laws.
ILO data show that, among informal domestic workers, 66% of domestic workers are in informal employment as a result of exclusions from labour and social security laws. For them, first steps towards formalization are the legal inclusion of domestic workers in pension schemes and other forms of social security, as well as coverage under labour laws that ensure adequate rights and protection.
The remaining 34% of informal domestic workers are covered by laws, but these laws are not adequately applied in practice. Formalizing these workers requires improvements in the implementation of existing laws and policies.
Closing the gaps: Best country-level practices
Many countries have taken measures to make decent work a reality for domestic workers by closing legal and implementation gaps.
Actions include placing limits on working time, ensuring adequate wages, increasing social security registration, improving occupational safety and health, eliminating violence and harassment, and formalizing domestic work.
Organizations of domestic workers and of employers of domestic workers, as well as workers’ and employers’ organizations, have also contributed.
Working time and wages
Domestic workers often work very long hours for low pay. To overcome legal coverage gaps, insufficient protection and lack of compliance, it is vital that wages and hours be set coherently. Minimum wages should take into account working hours, capacity of households to pay, and the needs of workers and their families. Implementation measures have included awareness-raising campaigns, and the use of records such as timesheets, payslips and standard contracts. In an increasing number of cases, social dialogue is making the difference.
- In Argentina, a national tripartite negotiating body for defining wage levels and working conditions has ensured that the minimum wage for domestic workers meets the needs of workers and employers, and reflects realities in various regions in the country.
- In Brazil, a collective agreement in São Paulo fixes wages above the minimum set at national level, provides for a daily and monthly minimum wage to ensure the adequate coverage of domestic workers working in both arrangements, and includes a wage scale for live-in domestic workers and measures to limit working time.
- In the United States, live-in domestic workers record their hours and wages and submit them to their employer, who is responsible for keeping such records. Periods of rest during meals, at night and off-duty must be specified and when rest periods are interrupted, they must be counted as working time.
- In Zambia, service providers use a Code of Conduct to set contractual terms at the point of hire, often negotiating salaries above the minimum wage, and helping to enforce the contracts.
Social security (including maternity)
To ensure that all domestic workers enjoy access to social protection equal to other employees, countries have provided them with coverage under the existing social insurance mechanism, at times making certain adaptations, to allow for registration of domestic workers with multiple employers and for State subsidization. In parallel, States must strengthen non-contributory schemes so domestic workers and their families lacking access are able to enjoy a basic level of protection.
- Mexico developed an electronic registration system to facilitate registration and payment of contributions.
- In Uruguay, a mobile app handles registration and contribution payments for employers of domestic workers. In tandem with awareness-raising activities and a dissemination campaign, such measures helped reduce contribution evasion from 60% in 2006 to 24% in 2017.
- In Belgium and France, service voucher systems have facilitated registration for domestic workers with multiple employers and also acted as a vehicle for the payment of wages and contributions, and for State subsidization.
- To account for the lower contributory capacity of domestic workers and their employers, Costa Rica and other countries have partially subsidized social security contributions for both parties.
- In South Africa, domestic workers are included in the Unemployment Insurance Fund, which provides unemployment and maternity benefits. Implementation was accompanied by resources to train and employ additional labour inspectors.
Violence and harassment
Violence and harassment against domestic workers must become legally and socially unacceptable. Domestic workers must be covered not only by labour, social security and OSH laws, but also by equality and non-discrimination laws.
- In Finland, under the Employment Contracts Act, the Occupational Health Care Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, domestic workers receive the same protections as other workers, enjoying wide legal coverage and a variety of complaint procedures.
- In Costa Rica, the same system governing safety and health of workers applies to domestic workers. It is supplemented by special insurance instruments created for domestic workers.
- In Ghana, the Domestic Violence Act prohibits all forms of violence and harassment in household environments. Domestic workers are included in the definition of domestic relationship and thus protected by the Act.
- In Uruguay, domestic workers and employers can receive free comprehensive legal assistance thanks to collaboration between a domestic workers’ union, an employer association, the government social security office and the university.
- To ensure that all domestic workers have access to social insurance, South Africa voted to make it unconstitutional to exclude domestic workers employed in private households from the scope of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act.
- Argentina developed a guide for women workers in private households that offers information on prevention and available hotlines for reporting gender-based violence.
- In Zambia and Singapore, code of conducts and guides for employers explicitly condemn violence and harassment against domestic workers as well as provide for punitive measures in case of misconduct.
Occupational safety and health
A necessary first measure is to include domestic workers within the scope of occupational safety and health laws, either through specific or general regulation. Domestic workers’ organizations, and organizations of employers of domestic workers, have played a key role where they exist.
- In Spain, employers of domestic workers are obliged to ensure that the work of the household employee is performed in healthy and safe conditions.
- In Portugal, employers must ensure that the place of work, tools, products and processes do not present a risk to workers’ health.
- In Italy, organizations have set up a bipartite healthcare fund to ensure sufficient healthcare coverage for domestic workers. This fund provided for hospital stays and quarantine periods for domestic workers infected with the COVID-19 virus.
- In Belgium, social partners in the service voucher system (Joint Committee 322.01) concluded agreements that aim to ensure domestic workers, through trade union and service-voucher enterprises, have the necessary information on OSH prevention and protection measures.
- In Tanzania, an agreement between the domestic workers’ union and an employment agency asks employers to sign a contract authorizing the union to visit workplaces and review working conditions, including relating to OSH.
- In Mexico, to build capacity of household employers and inform domestic workers of possible risks, the Secretary of Labour and Employment Promotion of Mexico City (STYFE) developed a Protocol on OSH for employers and domestic workers.
- Argentina collects survey data on the nature and incidence of OSH risks in domestic work, with the aim of designing better policies.
Without formal employment, access to decent work remains elusive. Formalization can reduce poverty and provide a path to better equality in society. Formalizing domestic work entails extending legal coverage, providing adequate protection and ensuring effective compliance, using a combination of enabling and punitive approaches.
- Uruguay has extended legal coverage to domestic workers by allowing workers who work part-time or have multiple employers to enrol with the Social Protection Bank (BPS). Registration rates have increased by 7%.
- In France, a combination of tax benefits and direct subsidies for household employers, combined with exemptions from social contributions for domestic workers, contributed to a 30-point decline in undeclared work between 1996 and 2015.
- In Mexico, the Social Security Institute (IMSS) established: (a) that registration of domestic workers to social security was obligatory; (b) that registration and payment was the exclusive responsibility of the employer; and (c) that domestic workers should have a single account for multiple employers to make their contributions to, without having to coordinate amongst themselves.
- In Italy, DOMINA, an organization of households as employers of domestic workers, helps household employers to fulfill their legal obligations through advisory services to regularize and formalize the employment relationship.
- In Kenya and South Africa, household inspection visits complement other methods such as spot checks to identify undeclared or underdeclared domestic workers.
- In Tanzania, labour inspectors and other key staff of the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of State President Office Labour and Public Service (MSPOLPS) received an ILO training course to improve labour inspection and dispute resolution in the domestic work sector.
- Argentina established a special Labour Court for Private Household Labour to resolve conflicts between domestic workers and household employers.
- In the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa and Zimbabwe, employers must provide domestic workers with detailed payslips.
Voice and representation
Collective organization of domestic workers and employers of domestic workers is vital to achieving decent work in the sector. Domestic workers’ organizations face stiff challenges to effectively represent their membership, yet they exist in at least 64 countries around the world. The International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) represents half a million domestic workers through 79 affiliate organizations. In some countries, there are also organizations of employers of domestic workers, which allow for collective bargaining to take place.
- In France and Italy, organizations of employers of domestic workers have existed for many years.
- In 2015, the Association of Employers of Domestic Workers in Zambia (AEDWZ) was founded to further social dialogue, disseminate information on domestic workers and their employers’ rights and obligations, and support dispute settlements.
- A collective agreement in Italy sets out work and employment conditions for domestic workers and outlines services including recruitment, contracts, settlement of labour disputes, and legal and tax compliance.
- In Brazil, a first collective agreement was signed in 2017 between the Domestic Workers Union of the Municipality of São Paulo (STDMSP) and the Union of Domestic Employers of the State of São Paulo (SEDESP), and recently renewed in 2021.
Challenges and opportunities ahead
Domestic work will continue to be in high demand across the world, especially in the light of demographic changes. As a job-intensive sector, and with the continued preference for in-home care, domestic work can also play an important role as a sector to invest in for a COVID-19 economic recovery. But under what conditions?
Despite the progress achieved, decent work is not yet a reality for most domestic workers. Nonetheless, in the ten years since the adoption of Convention No. 189, the world has gained substantial experience in resolving legal and implementation gaps, most notably through social dialogue. This has proven key to closing these persistent gaps as well as compliance gaps. Investment in these good practices will be essential to really make decent work a reality for domestic workers.