Typology of Domestic Workers

This material is drawn from Chen, Martha A. 2011. “Recognizing Domestic Workers, Regulating Domestic Work: Conceptual, Measurement, and Regulatory Challenges.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp 167-184.

Most domestic workers work for a known employer or set of employers: private clients or households. Some are formally employed with written contracts, labour protections, and social protection, but most are not. They may work full-time for one employer or part-time for one or more employers.

Some perform only a single task or service for their employers, while others perform multiple tasks or services. In many cases, the employment relationship is informal – that is, unregulated and unprotected due to the preference of the employer, the domestic worker, or both. Unlike other informal wage workers who work for a firm, a contractor, or no fixed employer, most domestic workers have a very personal relationship with their employer. Although personal, this employer-employee relationship remains unequal, often further exacerbated by differences in race, class, and citizenship – resulting in a range of conditions for domestic workers from paternalistic to exploitative.

Some domestic workers are hired through a “third party” agency or contractor, which could be a public, private for-profit, or private non-profit agency. In most such cases, the agency or contractor recruits the domestic worker and negotiates the contract with the employer. As a result, the employer-employee relationship becomes tripartite, more formal, and less personal. In a few cases, the agency or contractor provides support services to the domestic worker.

In some countries, “in-home” health and personal care for the sick or elderly is increasingly provided through “home care” agencies (Smith 2011). However, many agencies operate in a way that leads to domestic workers being subject to exploitation. This is particularly true for those agencies that recruit domestic workers to go to overseas. Often, en route to foreign countries, domestic workers are forced to sign contracts that include slavery conditions. Their passports are often taken away and they have to hand over their initial earnings to pay for the travel expenses and recruitment and transport fees.

Other domestic workers are effectively self-employed, working for multiple clients and, in some cases, providing their own equipment. A few are members of cooperatives of domestic workers who jointly negotiate contracts to provide domestic services to various private clients or households.

Typology of Domestic Workers

  • By Employment Arrangements
    • Hired by household vs. third-party agency
    • Single vs. multiple employers
    • Part-time vs. full-time
    • Live-in vs. live-out
    • Resident vs. migrant
    • Tied (e.g. by migrant visa) vs. non-tied
    • Single vs. multiple tasks
  • By Employment Status
    • Employees
      • of private clients or households
      • of “third party” agencies or contractors
    • Self-employed
    • Members of domestic worker cooperatives

It is also important to consider the heterogeneity and distinctive features of those who employ domestic workers. Consider, first, the private clients or households who employ domestic workers. They may be from any class – poor, middle or rich – and from any of the social partner groups in the ILO tripartite system: worker, employer, or government. This reality confounds the standard understanding of the class dynamics of the employer-capitalist and employee-proletariat relationship. Also, although there are some associations of domestic worker employers in Europe, most private employers of domestic workers are not organized. In fact, it is likely that a greater share of domestic workers, than of their employers, are organized or getting organized. And yet private clients and households exercise considerable power over their employees. This reality confounds the standard understanding of the relationship between being organized and having bargaining power.

Consider the “third-party” agencies that contract domestic workers. These may be public sector, private sector, or non-profit agencies. Conceptualizing and institutionalizing employment contracts and collective bargaining agreements between domestic workers and their employers is complicated by this reality.

In some states in the United States, public sector institutions have been set up to broker the tripartite-relationship between home care clients, home care providers, and the public sector that funds – or partially funds – home care. Embedded in the price of the ticket are contributions to all mandatory taxes and insurances. The price charged depends on the income level of the employer. But there is a public subsidy to those who are from low-income households so that the salary and social protection offered to domestic workers remains the same despite income differences between employer households. The government negotiates contracts with the providers of domestic services, especially those who work on a casual or part-time basis (Personal communication with Françoise Carré 2010; Tomei 2011).