Ten years on, domestic workers still fight for equality and decent work

Ten years after the adoption of a historic International Labour Organization Convention that confirmed their labour rights, domestic workers still fight to be recognized as workers and essential service providers.

Working conditions for many have not improved in a decade and have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report by the ILO.

At the height of the crisis, job losses among domestic workers ranged from 5 to 20 per cent in most European countries, as well as in Canada and South Africa. In the Americas, the situation was worse, with losses amounting to 25 – 50 per cent. Over the same period, job losses among other employees were less than 15 per cent in most countries.

In the EU-27, for those who remained in employment, domestic workers faced a significant impact on their working hours, ranging from a reduction of 78 per cent in Slovakia to about 47 per cent in Portugal and 21 per cent in Italy.

Data in the report show that the 75.6 million domestic workers around the world (4.5 per cent of employees worldwide) have suffered significantly, which in turn has affected the households that rely on them to meet their daily care needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated working conditions that were already very poor says the report. They became more vulnerable to the fallout from the pandemic because of long-standing gaps in labour and social protection. This is particularly the case for the more than 60 million domestic workers in the informal economy.

The crisis has highlighted the urgent need to formalize domestic work to ensure their access to decent work, starting with the extension and implementation of labour and social security laws to all domestic workers.”

said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder

Ten years ago, the adoption of the landmark Domestic Workers Convention was hailed as a breakthrough for the tens of millions of domestic workers around the world – most of whom are women.

© Alex Proimos

Since then there has been some progress – with a decrease of more than 16 percentage points in the number of domestic workers who are wholly excluded from the scope of labour laws and regulations. In the European Union, all domestic workers are covered by labour laws. Virtually all domestic workers are included under existing minimum wage provisions, are entitled to weekly rest and have a legal right to paid annual leave. Yet despite domestic workers being covered by a minimum wage, in some countries, the proportion of domestic workers who fall below the minimum wage is triple (Luxembourg ) or quadruple (Italy) the rate of non-compliance of other employees.

99.1 per cent of domestic workers in the EU-27 are legally covered by at least one branch of social security. 66.7 per cent of domestic workers are legally covered for all social protection branches which stands as an exception compared to other regions.

However globally, a large number of domestic workers (36 per cent) remain wholly excluded from labour laws, pointing to the urgent need to close legal gaps, particularly in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab States, where gaps are the largest.

Even where they are covered by labour and social security laws, such as in the EU-27, implementation remains a significant source of exclusion and informality. Among informal domestic workers in EU-27, less than 2 per cent are informal due to their exclusion from contributory social security laws. For the vast majority of informal domestic workers in the region, their informality is due to gaps in implementation.

According to the report, only one in five (18.8 per cent) domestic workers enjoy effective employment-related social security coverage.

Domestic work remains a female-dominated sector, employing 57.7 million women, who account for 76.2 per cent of domestic workers. While women make up the majority of the workforce in Europe and Central Asia and in the Americas, men outnumber women in Arab States (63.4 per cent) and North Africa, and make up just under half of all domestic workers in Southern Asia (42.6 per cent).

The vast majority of domestic workers are employed in two regions: about half (38.3 million) can be found across regions in Asia and the Pacific, largely on account of China; another quarter (17.6 million) are in the Americas.

Domestic workers are better organized today and can represent themselves to defend their views and interests. Their organizations, as well as organizations of employers of domestic workers, have played a key role in progress made to date.

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