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Q&A: The Struggle for Domestic Workers’ Rights

A group of smiling women near a blue wall
Domestic workers attend a training session in Debre Marcos, Ethiopia, on October 29, 2019. © Stefano Dal Pozzolo/contrasto/Redux

Domestic workers are lauded as “essential,” though too often they struggle to defend their rights and access social protections. The Open Society Foundations’ Elizabeth Frantz spoke to Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation, about how domestic workers are organizing and where they have seen progress.

The pandemic has revealed the essential role domestic workers play in caregiving and advancing our economies. Yet it is still a struggle to advance their rights. Why is that?

As a matter of law and policy, domestic work is often not regarded as work. As a result, social protections extended to other groups of workers are denied to domestic workers. Layered on top of this is another thorny challenge: domestic workers are informal workers. As a result, they are often in a difficult position to call attention to violations of their rights, and it is difficult for them to access remedies.

Can you be explicit about the challenges that domestic workers face?

In many countries, domestic workers are women of color or immigrants. Domestic workers start from a structurally disadvantaged position due to their ethnic, racial, migration, and class background.

Domestic workers also face multiple legal and logistical barriers to unionizing and collective bargaining.

In addition, domestic workers face myriad other challenges, including: navigating male guardianship, immigration policies, border closures, national security laws, women’s lack of access to education and information, inability to negotiate public space, and the comparative disadvantage women have to move or pursue job or legal options. The invisible and isolated nature of our work also means that wage theft, illegal wage deduction, long work hours, and a lack of mechanisms for redress are rampant. We also face racial stereotyping.

With the ongoing public health crisis and crisis in care services, these challenges are growing. But wherever there’s injustice, there’s also resistance. Domestic workers are fighting for their rights.

What can be done to better protect the rights of domestic workers?

We must first recognize these rights, and to do so, a first step is to recognize domestic work as work. Domestic work must not stand outside of social protection, and domestic workers’ organizing must take a seat at every negotiating table: within unions, through social dialogue, and at the level of policy making. Stakeholders must regularly ask themselves a question that is all too often ignored: are they investing in transformative and equitable policies that respect domestic workers’ rights?

Where are you seeing progress?

There are many examples, albeit mostly on paper. They are important—as first steps. Thirty-five countries have ratified ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention 189, an international law that protects the rights of domestic workers.

A number of governments have enacted policies, laws, and regulations that give  domestic workers greater access to minimum wage, holidays, sick leave and other protections. Some examples in the last two years:  the inclusion of domestic workers in the occupational health and safety law in South Africa; the provision of unemployment benefits for domestic workers in Chile; the right to written contracts and all other workers’ rights in Peru; and the right to change employers in Qatar

It is important to note that we have seen little progress in Asia. With the exception of the Philippines, none of the countries in that region has ratified ILO Convention 189 and many exclude domestic workers in the coverage provided by labor laws. Attitudes, norms and legal frameworks concerning domestic work and domestic workers must change.   

Looking broadly at this often difficult work, I can tell that you are very hopeful and upbeat. What gives you so much hope that things will get better for domestic workers?

Yes, I am hopeful because our members are hopeful. In 2019 I visited one of our affiliates, the National Trade Union of Domestic Workers (SINED), representing 2,492 domestic workers in Mozambique.  After spending two days with their domestic worker leaders, I felt a little depressed listening to the endless challenges they faced on a daily basis. At our last meeting, I asked, “How do we go forward?” Immediately, their faces changed and they replied cheerfully in almost one voice, “We will continue to fight!” Experiences like this keep me going.  

Despite the slow progress, domestic workers are not what they were 10 or 15 years ago.  As they come to know they are workers and have rights, they are determined to come together to claim those rights. When we started our organization in 2013, we had 42 organizations with 240,000 members. Today, we have 83 affiliates with almost 600,000 members. Domestic workers are joining trade unions, coming together to learn, to discuss what to do to secure their rights and how to do it. This is happening every day, in all corners of the world. As they move on, they inspire so many other people to come forward, so the ranks of our allies are growing. The future is hopeful, though further challenges lay ahead. 

The International Domestic Workers Federation is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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