“Hi, my name is Ana, I’m 25, from Apurimac, and currently living in Lima. I started to work at the early age of 8 in the family of a lawyer in which I was allowed to study but with duties to fulfil in the house. When I was 14, I started to work full time in the home of a 84 year-old lady and her son where my duties were washing clothes, cooking, cleaning the house, doing the shopping, helping the lady for certain things for two years. This family allowed me to continue my studies at night but at the same time they would always tell me: "you are useless." When I wanted to leave this house, they threatened me, "if you leave, I will report you to the police." For a while they scared me and I stayed a little longer out of fear. Sometimes when I made mistakes or I was answering back, they would pull my hair from my shoulder or simply push me. They paid me 80 soles a month and with time they increased it and I managed to earn up to 200 soles. They wouldn't give me any compensations, bonuses or holidays. Sometimes they didn't let me go out on Sundays.”
“I am Marilyn, 27 years old, working as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. I work here to escape unemployment, low wages and limited opportunities at home. Even though I heard a lot of bad stories of Overseas Filipino Workers working as domestic workers in the Middle East, I still needed to take a risk because I felt I had no other choice. In my contract I was supposed to work as a maid to clean the house but to my surprise, when I got there, I had to be a nanny and at the same time clean the house for two families also related to my original employer. There was a time when I got sick and I could not even stand up. But my employers still forced me to work, they did not even bother to bring me to the hospital for a check-up. Instead, my employers always shouted at me, saying I was useless. Because of my situation they didn’t give me my salary. I felt like a prisoner in their home. I wanted to go home but I could not. I asked for help from my agency to get out of this situation but they never replied. I received help from an institution helping domestic workers in KSA and they helped me find another employer I am currently working for.”
These are two concrete experiences illustrating the situation of many. According to the ILO, more than 67 million workers work as domestic workers (not counting child domestic workers) and this number is increasing steadily. (1) They are hired, among others, as cleaners, cooks, nannies and home care workers, performing tasks such as cleaning, washing clothes, taking care of children or elderly people, gardening. Obviously these are very important tasks necessary for human survival. They are task involving care. In these times of a pandemic, we see how fundamental care work is.
However, this importance is not represented in the value given to domestic work. On the contrary, it is sometimes not even recognised as “work” but regarded as an easy, supplementary task without qualifications needed. In many cases, the working conditions contradict their workers’ dignity. We see very low wages and excessively long working hours. As also mentioned by Ana and Jonalyn, a weekly resting day is often not guaranteed especially if a domestic worker lives at the employer’s house. Many female domestic workers are abused sexually by male employers. Domestic workers are a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment 2 and thus often without any social security and out of scope of labour protection controls. In the case of formal contracts and clear agreements about employment, private households remain a sphere out of the public eye, so even existing labour laws tend to lack enforcement. As many other sectors today, we see domestic work being organized in “agencies” on the Internet in some countries, where employers can order the “help” online. The domestic worker’s contract with the platform can be temporary. It can also be a “free-lancer” position so the worker may cover all costs of social security and all risks.
Even if jobs like gardeners, butlers or drivers are usually performed by men, more than 80% of the workers engaged in domestic work are female. Domestic work is often performed by migrant workers, increasing their vulnerability even more if the residence status depends on the employer. There are situations of employers taking control of the migrant domestic worker’s papers, causing an “employment relationship” which is nothing less than slavery.
Obviously, exploitation of domestic workers is often connected to gender and ethnic discrimination. It can also be connected to discrimination based on age, meaning a severe risk for young domestic workers. In cases of child domestic work, some employers have total control, which endangers the child worker’s health, security and education.
This situation is not acceptable. Domestic work must be recognized and valued as the important and hard work it is. This must be translated into working conditions allowing dignified work. The safety and health of young domestic workers must be ensured.
Domestic workers have the right:
- to wages respecting their hard work
- to organise
- to a strict limitation of working hours
- to effective labour protection also covering such “invisible” sectors.
2. Cf. Ibid.