Domestic Workers

TOC Image: Domestic Workers

Domestic Workers


WIEGO Specialists

Karin Pape
Regional Coordinator for Europe

Helping Households Work Around the World

According to the International Labour Office (ILO), “tens of millions” of domestic workers provide essential services that enable others to work outside their homes. Thus domestic workers help keep labour markets and economies working around the globe.

Most, though not all, domestic workers are women. The vast majority are from the poorer sections of society (ILO 2007).

What Domestic Workers Do

Domestic workers work in the homes of others for pay, providing a range of services: they sweep and clean; wash clothes and dishes; shop and cook; care for children, the elderly, and the disabled; they provide gardening, driving, and security services. Some live on the premises of their employer. Others work part time, often for multiple employers.

Women are concentrated in cleaning and care services, while men tend to have the better paying jobs as gardeners, drivers, or security guards.

For more information, see Typology of Domestic Workers.

See the latest news from around the globe on domestic workers.

Statistical Snapshot

Domestic workers

Domestic work is a large – and in some countries growing – sector of employment, especially for women. The latest conservative estimates find the number of domestic workers increased from 33.2 million in 1995 to 52.6 million in 2010 – or 3.6 per cent of global wage employment (ILO and WIEGO 2013). However, since domestic workers are undercounted in labour force surveys, the number could be far higher.

In 2010, domestic work was highest as a percentage of total employment in Latin America and the Caribbean (7.6 per cent) followed by the Middle East (5.6 per cent).

Global and Regional Estimates by the ILO of the Number of Domestic Workers (women and men)

Domestic workers       

As a percentage

of total employment

Developed countries                                            3,555,000 0.8
Eastern Europe and the CIS    595,000 0.3
Asia and the Pacific  21,467,000 1.2
   (excluding China)  12,077,000 1.2
Latin America and the Caribbean  19,593,000 7.6
Africa   5,236,000 1.4
Middle East 2,107,000 5.6
TOTAL 52,553,000 1.7
Adapted from ILO-WIEGO, 2013, Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, 2nd Edition, pg. 43.

Domestic Work and Gender

Women accounted for about 83 per cent of counted domestic workers in 2010. As a percentage of women’s wage employment, as of total wage employment, the greatest proportions were found in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East. Domestic work is also a major employer of women in Asia and Africa, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). In the Middle East, one out of three women wage employees is domestic worker, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, the figure is one in four (ILO and WIEGO 2013). However, in only a few countries are more than 1 per cent of men employed in domestic service.

Measurement Challenges

WIEGO’s Statistics team has identified three main challenges to measuring domestic workers:

  • the definition challenge: what types of activities should be included?
  • a classification and coding challenge: which statistical classification system should be used and how many codes are needed to cover all types of domestic work?
  • a tabulation challenge: how to tabulate data with different codes at different levels of classification?

For technical details, see Measurement Challenges for Domestic Workers.

Migrant Workers

Women (and girls) now make up about half of the estimated 200 million migrants worldwide. Domestic workers are an important part of this growing trend.

Asia is a large source of international migrants who work as domestics. As of the mid-2000s, around 6.3 million Asian migrants were legally living and working in the more developed Asian countries (United Nations Population Fund 2006). An estimated 1.2 million additional undocumented migrants are in the region, many working as domestic workers  (United Nations Population Fund 2006).

Arab countries employ millions of migrant domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia there are approximately 1.5 million domestic workers (Human Rights Watch 2008) – again, most came from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

In Latin America, domestic workers (most women) account for up to 60 per cent of internal and cross-border migrants. Young women, in particular, migrate from rural areas to cities or from lower income to higher income countries. Women migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America make up most of the domestic workforce in the USA  (United Nations Population Fund 2006), accounting for 58 per cent of workers in personal and related services in 2000.

In December 2013, the International Domestic Workers’ Federation issued a statement about migrant domestic workers in which they expressed concern about increasing discrimination and exploitation, and the continuous violation of basic workers’ rights and human rights of migrant domestic workers.

Child Labour

The ILO estimates that globally, as many as 7.4 million children under age of 15 work in domestic service, especially in the developing world. They are particularly hidden and among the most difficult to survey (ILO and WIEGO 2013).    

Driving Forces & Working Conditions

Domestic workers

Domestic workers tend to have lower wages, fewer benefits, and less legal or social protections compared to most other wage workers, with the probable exception of casual day labourers and industrial outworkers. Very few domestic workers have labour contracts. They usually have no maternity leave, health care or pension provision.

In many countries they are excluded from labour law and social security protection, or inferior standards apply. Even where protective laws are on the statute books, they are frequently ignored by employers and not enforced by authorities. An ILO report examining legislation for domestic workers in over 60 countries noted that, “Regardless of the manner in which domestic work is regulated by national laws, standards on domestic work fall below labour standards set for other categories of workers” (Ramirez-Machado 2003: 64).

Why Women Do This Work

Many factors lead women to enter domestic work. Women from poor households or disadvantaged communities often have few employment opportunities, and may face discrimination based on gender, caste or class, race or ethnicity. Cleaning, cooking, and caring for children and the elderly is almost universally regarded as women’s work, so men rarely compete in this job market.
Low levels of education and few marketable skills also play a role. However, some domestic workers who migrate from places such as the Philippines and Eastern Europe have medium or high levels of education (Ramirez-Machado 2003).

Demand for domestic services is growing due to demographic, social and employment trends. These include women working outside the home, a decline in public provision of care services, and the disappearance of extended family support. Affordable domestic workers free up other women to work outside the home.

Rural poverty has increased in many countries, causing young women to move to urban areas in search of employment.

Working Conditions

Most domestic work is informal – performed outside of labour regulations and social protections. To borrow the title of the Social Law Project Conference held in Cape Town, South Africa in May 2010, domestic workers are “exploited, undervalued – and essential.” (Read a subsequent publication: Darcy du Toit, Editor. 2013. Exploited, Undervalued - And Essential: Domestic Workers and the Realisation of their Rights, Pretoria University Law Press.)

Several common features of domestic work set it apart from other types of paid work. First, domestic workers are employed in private homes rather than firms or enterprises. This tends to make them invisible as workers and isolated from others in the sector. They are dependent on the good or bad will of their employer. Despite the concept of the home as “safe haven”, growing evidence suggests domestic workers are exposed to a range of unhealthy and hazardous working conditions (see Peggie Smith, The Pitfalls of Home: Protecting the Health and Safety of Paid Domestics 2011).

In some cases, domestic workers are hired by third-party agencies, which are technically the employer ; however, the agency may see its role only as negotiating the placement, not overseeing working conditions. In other cases, agencies act only as “brokers”. These are sometimes linked to criminal activity, and charge the domestic worker a lot of money, promising services which are never delivered.

Some countries, including Ireland and Uruguay, have passed legislation mandating the inspection of private households (ILO 2010).

Domestic workers often have a personal, intimate knowledge of their employers, but the relationship is highly unequal, leaving many domestic workers vulnerable to verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Often differences in race, class, and citizenship increase this inequality.
Also, most of the tasks involved in domestic work are seen as “women’s work”, so are considered of low status and value. Tasks such as gardening, driving, or guarding have higher status and are typically performed by men.

Finally, a widespread perception that labour standards cannot be enforced in the private home means many employers do not comply with and government does not enforce labour laws regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions. See Policies & Programmes , below.

Specific Challenges

Certain categories of domestic workers face specific working conditions that exacerbate the disadvantages. Live-in domestic workers experience greater isolation, less privacy and more limited mobility, work longer hours and receive a larger share of payments in kind (such as board). Living conditions are frequently sub-standard. They are also more vulnerable to physical/sexual abuse by employers.

Migrant domestic workers often live in the employers’ home, facing not only the challenges of live-in domestics but also abuses within the recruitment system and from police and immigration authorities, including advance commission fees, withheld wages and passports, and verbal, physical, or sexual harassment. To protect migrant domestic workers, laws and regulations are needed at the international level and in both sending and receiving countries.

Trafficked domestic workers face the challenges of migrant domestic workers, but these are compounded by the “extra-legal” operations of their recruiters and the near-bondage conditions they may live in. Some recruiters keep the workers’ passports.

Finally, child domestic workers need special attention.


Data on wages in domestic work are available in the ILO Bureau of Statistics Database for only a few countries. The data show that women employed in domestic work receive lower wages than women working in most other jobs, and lower wages than men working as domestic workers.
A compilation of official data from 19 Latin American countries indicates that the earnings of domestic workers are among the lowest of all occupations (Tokman 2010).

  • Across Latin America, women’s earnings in domestic work are 73 per cent of men’s.
  • Domestic workers earn 41 per cent of the earnings of the urban workforce.
  • Women domestic workers earn only 76 per cent of the earnings of all women in informal employment.
  • 36 per cent of domestic workers are from households below the poverty line, compared to 26 per cent of the total urban workforce and 35 per cent of wage workers in informal enterprises.
  • In Costa Rica, women domestic workers earn an average of 40 per cent of the wages paid to other women workers, while the comparable ratio for men is 67 per cent
  • The proportion of domestic workers with labour contracts and/or social protections is very low compared to other occupations.

It is likely these patterns would be observed in other regions of the world if data were available.

Related Reading

Meet a domestic worker: Organizing the Patience Industry: Profile of a Domestic Worker in Maputo, Mozambique by Ruth Castel-Branco.

Policies & Programmes

Domestic workers

Regulatory Challenges

Domestic workers are not always covered under labour laws and social protection policies/schemes. Even where they are covered by laws, they may not be covered in practice. Implementation and enforcement is weak or non-existent, and the private households/individuals who employ domestic workers may not pay into payroll taxes or collect income tax.

Few domestic workers have labour contracts or social protection and women in domestic work tend to be in a worse position than men.

Many domestic workers do not know what benefits and protections they should get in exchange for taxes paid and contributions made. Migrant workers face particular challenges leaving them with little legal protection, especially if they are undocumented or have been trafficked.

For a full discussion on the legal and policy challenges for domestic workers, see Domestic Workers and Law.

Addressing the Challenges

Domestic work has begun to receive the attention it deserves. Several countries have introduced new laws, policies, or schemes to protect domestic workers and regulate the sector. They include:

  • a right to organize, coverage under the Employment Ordinance, and contracts with minimum standards required by the Immigration Department in Hong Kong
  • a Magna Carta for Household Helpers in the Philippines
  • a subsidized state “service ticket” scheme with collective bargaining in France, Belgium, and part of Switzerland
  • a Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 1997, with a binding mandate to protect domestic workers in South Africa (Bonner 2010)
  • a Domestic Servant Service Policy in Ghana, introduced in 2012, to monitor contracts and working conditions (read more here)
  • a bill in New York State that gives the Labor Department and the attorney general the power to enforce legislation on fair pay, work hours, and benefits for domestic workers.

Decent Work for Domestic Workers: The ILO Convention

In 1948, the International Labour Conference (ILC) recognized the need for a special international instrument for domestic workers. For decades, however, no such instrument – convention or recommendation – was introduced.

That began to change in 2007, when a coordinated global effort by domestic workers and their organizations led to the adoption of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C189) and accompanying Recommendation at the 100th International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva in June 2011.


For more information about the journey to this historic moment, and the ongoing efforts to secure rights for domestic workers worldwide, read the Campaign for a Domestic Workers’ Convention and "Yes We Did It!" an account of how the historic Convention was acheived.

Organization & Voice

Domestic workers

Most domestic workers are not organized into trade unions and have no representative voice. Although this is beginning to change, organizing domestic workers is not easy. In some countries, they are not allowed to join trade unions. Even where they have the legal right to organize, it is not easy because they are isolated and vulnerable. The nature of the worker-employer relationship makes it difficult to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their employers.

Despite these challenges, domestic workers have made great strides in organizing in recent years. The recent global movement toward ratification of C189 has provided impetus at the local level for organizing. In 2013, the International Domestic Workers’ Network transformed itself into the first global union organization in the world run by women: the International Domestic Workers' Federation (IDWF). Read more.

Related Reading

Bonner, Chris and Françoise Carré. Global Networking: Informal Workers Build Solidarity, Power and Representation through Networks and Alliances.

Goldsmith, Mary. 2013. Collective Bargaining and Domestic Workers in Uruguay | en español

Mather, Celia. 2014. Yes, We Did It! How the World’s Domestic Workers Won
Their International Rights and Recognition
  | en español