Domestic workers are on the frontline of this pandemic, and at risk

Hero Image
Domestic Worker in South Africa
Published Date
Yola Verbruggen


Domestic workers are an essential part of the households in which they work. They care for the elderly, the disabled or for young children; they wash, shop, clean and cook; they provide gardening, driving, and security services. Worldwide, at least 67 million people are employed as domestic workers. Because of their work that allows families living in those households to do their jobs, domestic workers have a crucial role to play in keeping markets and economies working globally.

Yet, as shelter in place orders were imposed following the COVID-19 outbreak, families everywhere dismissed those workers who had been keeping their households running. Carers, nannies, cleaners and drivers are still being dismissed without pay as their employers lose their jobs or fear for the spread of the virus. Live-in domestic workers, on the other hand, are now required to do more cleaning or care work without extra pay and some don’t get paid at all. Others have been told they cannot leave the house. In Peru, to avoid the curfew, domestic workers ask their employers to provide them with written contracts, so that they can continue to travel to work.

Many domestic workers earn essential income that their families need to survive. The loss of livelihoods is resulting in a loss of access to basic necessities, including food and medication, and the inability to pay rent, thereby exposing workers and their families to the risk of eviction and homelessness. In Mexico alone, most of the 2.2 million women domestic workers are being dismissed without compensation.

Even before the virus, domestic workers were vulnerable as their wages tend to be low and they enjoy fewer benefits and legal or social protections than other wage workers. Very few domestic workers have labour contracts and most don’t have maternity leave, health care or pension provision. Laws to protect them, when they exist at all, are often ignored by employers and not enforced by the authorities.

Worldwide, 80 per cent of domestic workers are women. The crisis thus disproportionately affects women domestic workers, who on top of their uncertainties at work also face increased caring and cleaning responsibilities at home with school closures and sick relatives. For those still able to go to work, they need to choose between the risk of contracting the virus and putting themselves and their families at risk, and putting food on the table. The majority of domestic workers are from the poorer sections of society.

Migrant workers, who make up a significant portion of domestic workers, are extra vulnerable as they have little legal protection, especially if they are undocumented or have been trafficked. Of the more than 150 million migrant workers worldwide, women and girls make up almost 67 million ─and one in six is a domestic worker.

Most domestic workers are not organized into trade unions and have no representative voice. Because of the isolated nature of their work, 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. In some countries, they are not allowed to join trade unions.

Despite these challenges, domestic workers have made great strides in organizing. Support for these organizations now is important so that they can provide relief for their members during the pandemic. In the USA, the National Domestic Workers Alliance launched an emergency relief fund for domestic workers facing hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The goal of the fund is to raise $4 million to support 10,000 workers.

The International Domestic Workers Federation ─a membership-based global organization representing over 560.000 domestic and household workers in 58 countries─ has called on governments to protect the rights of domestic workers. They ask for protective equipment ─including for handling harmful chemicals─ and for the distribution of information to the workers in languages that the workers understand, especially with regards to staying safe. Workers should also be paid their wages in the event of dismissal and they should receive paid sick leave and access to healthcare.

To fill the gap in support for informal workers, IDWF has set up a solidarity fund which has already distributed about 500.000 USD to affiliates, and thus domestic workers, on the ground. The money is handed out in grants of 5.000 to 10.000 USD, a small amount that has made a great difference for workers unable to access any other type of support. The funds are mostly used for immediate relief, such as the distribution of food parcels, personal protection equipment (PPE), and medication. About 20,000 domestic workers worldwide have already benefited from the solidarity fund, according to IDWF. On top of that, it enabled some IDWF affiliates to strengthen their organizing and expand their membership at a time when organizing is even more difficult than usual, because of restrictions on face-to-face meetings and pressure from the authorities.

‘For example, our affiliate in Malaysia distributed 208 food baskets and basic goods to migrant domestic workers and was able to reach another 100-domestic worker from outside of their own membership, 30 of whom joined the organizing,’ Roula Seghaier, Strategic Program Coordinator with IDWF, explains. Another example is Latin America, which has the largest representation with IDWF. Around 5,500 domestic workers there received assistance through the solidarity fund.’

The needs of domestic workers are echoed by workers organizations worldwide. “The employers could still let their workers come in and work, but they need to buy the correct things to protect their workers. Like hand gloves, masks, sanitisers,” assistant general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, Eunice Dhladhla, told Times Live. The president of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa, Pinky Mashiane, in the same piece, said “If employers tell their domestic workers to stay at home, they must still get paid for that.”

Photo: Lucy Mokhele's physically demanding workday in a private home involves cleaning and cooking for her elderly employer and other family members in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group