Domestic Workers

Domestic worker Anna Nkobele at work in Johannesburg

Domestic workers and COVID-19


Essential but Vulnerable Workers 

The 76.5 million domestic workers around the world represent 2.3 per cent of total employment worldwide (ILO 2021). They provide essential services to households and yet most work in vulnerable situations.

Domestic workers provide a range of services in private homes: 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. See also WIEGO’s Typology of Domestic Workers.

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.

Demand for domestic services is growing worldwide due to the increases in women working outside the home, the aging of populations and the increasing need for long term care and the loss of extended family support.

Domestic Workers in Santo Domingo, Nov, 2019.
Domestic Workers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Nov, 2019. Credit: Sofia Trevino.

Statistical Snapshot

Data in this section are also reported in ILO, 2021, Making Decent Work a Reality for Domestic Workers and Domestic Workers in the World: A Statistical Profile, WIEGO Statistical Brief no.31, 2022 (forthcoming).

Domestic workers are identified in a specific category or categories in labor force surveys. However, in practice, those who work for multiple households or as child care or personal care workers or are hired by or through service agencies are often not captured as domestic workers. At the 20th International Conference of Labour Statistics in 2018, the following statistical definition of domestic workers was adopted: “workers of any sex employed for pay or profit, including in-kind payment, who perform work in or for a household or households to provide services mainly for consumption by the household. The work may be performed within the household premises or in other locations.” (ILO 2018b, para. 104.) This definition is an important step in improving the measurement of domestic workers.

The ILO (2021) estimates there are 76.5 million domestic workers aged 15 years and above globally and 76 per cent are women. Some live on the premises of their employer – 29 per cent of women domestic workers and 23 per cent of men. Most domestic workers are hired directly through a household, while a little over one-quarter are hired indirectly through or by a service agency. Others work part time and many have multiple employers.

Over half (55 per cent) of the world’s domestic workers are in two regions. East and South-eastern Asia has the highest share at 36 per cent followed by Latin America and the Caribbean at 19 per cent. 

Globally, 81 per cent of domestic workers work informally and have no effective access to social or labour protection. However, in Chile, with a labour law that regulates private household work, rates of informality among domestic workers are much lower: 29 per cent for domestic workers in Metropolitan Santiago, 41 per cent in urban Chile and 48 per cent in Chile nationally (WIEGO Statistical Brief no.30, 2022 (forthcoming)).

Women comprise a higher share of domestic workers than men: in developing and emerging countries, 79 per cent are women in comparison to 21 per cent men; and in developed countries, 64 per cent are women and 36 per cent men. 

Globally, domestic work is 4 per cent of women’s employment and 1 per cent of men’s. In the developed countries of the Middle East almost half of employed women are domestic workers in comparison to 15 per cent of employed men.  

Across all countries the overwhelming majority of women in domestic work (around 80 per cent) are engaged as cleaners and helpers. Men in domestic work are engaged in a wider range of types of work: around one-third are security guards, gardeners and building maintenance workers; around one-fourth are cleaners and helpers and a little less than one quarter are drivers. Across the countries, around 7 per cent of women domestic workers are engaged in direct care and 1 per cent of men. 

Migrant Domestic Workers

The ILO Global Estimates on Migrant Workers (2015) reports that one out of six (17 per cent) of the 67 million domestic workers is an international migrant worker. The report states that aging demographics, particularly in European and North American countries, have caused an increased need for domestic workers who care for elderly people.

Also, rural poverty has increased in many countries. Young women, in particular, migrate from rural areas to cities or from lower income to higher income countries in search of employment.

Migrant domestic workers often live in the employers’ home, facing the challenges of both personal and economic dependency. While they vary per region, additional challenges workers face include abuses in the recruitment system, such as excessive advance commission fees and wages and passports being withheld by the employer, and verbal, physical abuses and sexual harassment at the hands of employers or state officials. Severe instances of violence, including murder, have been documented. Trafficked domestic workers experience near-bondage conditions, with recruiters often keeping the workers’ passports. To protect migrant domestic workers, laws and regulations are needed at the international level and in both sending and receiving countries.

The ILO 2021 provides data on the share of international migrants among domestic workers (the data baseline is 2013):

  • In the Arab States, 83 per cent of domestic workers are migrants.
  • In Europe and Central Asia, migrants are 55 per cent of domestic workers in Northern, Southern and Western Europe; 31 per cent in Central and Western Asia  and 25 per cent in Eastern Europe.
  • In North America, migrants comprise 71 per cent of domestic workers.
  • In most of the subregions of Asia, a low proportion of domestic workers are international migrants; the exception is South-eastern Asia and the Pacific where one-quarter of domestic workers are migrants.

Read Cross-border care: How to protect migrants in domestic work (posted by Apolitical, July 2018).

Child Labour and Domestic Work   

The ILO estimates that, globally, as many as 7.1 million children under the age of 17 work in domestic service, especially in the developing world. They are particularly hidden and among the most difficult to survey (ILO and WIEGO 2013). The informal employment arrangements in which these children work exclude them from labour and social protection. Their isolated workplace makes it difficult for them to exchange with other children or seek help in case they face problems. 

For resources on child labour and domestic work, visit the International Domestic Workers Federation’s website.


Working Conditions

Compared to most other wage workers, domestic workers tend to have lower wages, fewer benefits, and less legal or social protections. Very few domestic workers have labour contracts. They usually have no maternity leave, health care or pension provision.

Domestic worker Lucy Mokhahle working at the house of her employer Rose Hamilton. August 18, 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage.
Domestic worker Lucy Mokhahle working at the house of her employer Rose Hamilton. August 18, 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage.

In many countries they are completely excluded from labour law and social security protection, or inferior standards apply. In Asia Pacific, the majority (61.5 per cent) of domestic workers are fully excluded from coverage under national labour laws while 84.3 per cent remain in informal employment. Even where protective laws are on the statute books, they are frequently ignored by employers and not enforced by authorities.

Most domestic work is informal: performed outside of labour regulations and social protections.

Several common features of domestic work set it apart from other types of paid work:

Isolated in Private Homes

Because domestic workers are employed in private homes, they are invisible as workers and isolated from others in the sector. Especially live-in domestic workers are economically and personally dependent and thus working on the good or bad will of their employers. Private homes can be “safe havens”, however, growing evidence suggests domestic workers are exposed to a range of unhealthy and hazardous working conditions.

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.

Finally, a widespread perception that labour standards cannot be enforced in private homes means many employers do not comply and the government does not enforce labour laws regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions. (See Laws & Policies Regulating Domestic Work, below.)

Abuse, Harassment and Violence

According to the International Domestic Workers' Federation, some domestic workers face multiple forms of violence: physical abuse, intimidation, threats, bullying, sexual assault, harassment, being provided poor-quality food and a lack of privacy. Severe instances of violence, including murder, have been documented.

Certain categories of domestic workers face greater disadvantages. Live-in domestic workers experience more isolation, less privacy and more limited mobility, work longer hours, and receive a larger share of payments in kind (such as meals and accommodation). Living conditions are frequently poor. They are also more vulnerable to physical/sexual abuse by employers compared to live-out domestic workers.

The ILO Convention 189 “Decent Work for domestic workers” was the first ILO Convention that stipulated governments’ need to ensure protections against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence (Article 5). In 2018 and 2019, a delegation of domestic workers participated in negotiations at the International Labour Conference (ILC) around violence and harassment in the world of work; they contributed to securing an ILO Convention (C190) on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. In this convention, domestic work is included in a list of occupations in which exposure to violence and harassment may be more likely and therefore requires specific attention of governments regarding protection and preventive measures (Article 9).  

In this WIEGO podcast, Adriana Paz, the Latin America regional coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), discusses the acute issues.

 

Earnings/Wages

Data on wages in domestic work are available in the ILO Bureau of Statistics Database for only a few countries. The data show that domestic workers receive substantially lower wages in comparison to other employees. They typically earn less than half of average wages – and sometimes no more than about 20 per cent of average wages. Domestic workers are frequently excluded from minimum wage protection. An estimated 21.5 million domestic workers do not fall under the minimum wage protections in the country in which they work. Those who are covered are often entitled to a lower minimum wage than other workers. 

Agencies

In some cases, domestic workers are hired by third-party agencies. The agency may see its role only as negotiating the placement, not overseeing working conditions. Often agencies act de facto as employers but are not accepting the obligations that go along with it, namely respecting labour rights, including providing for social protection. 

Increasingly, agencies operate through internet platforms, in particular for cleaning services. Domestic workers are often only allowed to access the platforms if they register themselves as self-employed workers. The Danish trade union 3F negotiated the first ever collective agreement with a platform company, Hilfr, in 2018. It states that the status of self-employed domestic workers automatically changes to employed after 100 hours of work as employees. Unfortunately, the collective agreement is being challenged by the Danish Competition and Consumer Authority. 

Agencies play a crucial role in connecting domestic workers when they are seeking employment in foreign countries. These agencies are sometimes  linked to criminal activity and charge domestic workers a lot of money, promising services that are never delivered. Article 15 of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention 189 clearly spells out the conditions and regulations which need to be in place in order to respect the rights of domestic workers.

WIEGO Worker Stories


Laws & Policies Regulating Domestic Work

Regulatory Challenges

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 further resources on the legal and policy challenges for domestic workers, see Domestic Workers and Law.

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 domestic workers and support organizations from around the globe met for the first time in Amsterdam. A coordinated global effort 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.

The ILO tracks the number of countries that have ratified C189.

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 achieved. In 2021, ten years after the adoption of C 189, WIEGO and IDWF reflected on the victories and the challenges which still remain.

Find here the WIEGO and IDWF toolkit on ILO Convention C189 for workers.

Addressing the Challenges

Domestic work has begun to receive the attention it deserves. Several countries have ratified the ILO Convention 189 and some have (without ratification) 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
  • as of July 2021, ten Federal states in the US have passed bills of rights for domestic workers: New York, Illinois, Oregon, California, Nevada, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Virginia. In addition, the cities of Seattle and Philadelphia both passed their own bill of rights.The National Domestic Workers Alliance is now pushing for federal recognition and protection of domestic workers

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


Organization & Voice

Most domestic workers are not organized into trade unions and have no representative voice. Despite many challenges, though, domestic workers have a long history of organizing, in particular in Latin America. Still, in some countries, they are not allowed to organize or 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 and the lack of a counterpart (employer’s organization) makes it difficult to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their employers.

The global movement toward an ILO Convention for domestic workers and ratification campaigns of C189 provided a tool for domestic workers’ organizations for organizing and taking actions to improve their working and living conditions at all levels. 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)

IDWF is a membership-based global organization of domestic workers that aims to protect and advance domestic workers’ rights everywhere. As of November 2021, the IDWF has 82 affiliates from 64 countries, representing over 590,000 domestic/ household workers' members. They are organized in trade unions, associations, networks and workers' cooperatives.

Read more about WIEGO’s work in organizing with domestic workers in the 2012 book The Only School We Have: Learning from Organizing Experiences Across the Informal Economy (pages 28-41).


WIEGO Specialists on Domestic Workers

Karin Pape
Deputy Director, Organization and Representation Programme

Pamhidzai H. Bamu
Africa Coordinator, Law Programme

Vanessa Pillay
Organization & Representation Programme Coordinator for Africa

Sofia Trevino
Advocacy & Communications Strategist, Global Networks


Related Reading


Top photo: Anna Nkobele, a domestic worker in Johannesburg (credit: Jonathan Torgovnik, Getty Images Reportage)
Occupational group
Language