New Report: 90 Percent of the World’s Domestic Workers Lack Social Security Protection

Elizabeth Grossman April 12, 2016

Filipino domestic workers march for labor rights. (ILO / Flickr)

Nine­ty per­cent — or 60 mil­lion of the world’s esti­mat­ed 67 mil­lion domes­tic work­ers, some 80 per­cent of whom are women — labor with­out any basic social secu­ri­ty pro­tec­tions, says a new Inter­na­tion­al Labor Orga­ni­za­tion (ILO) report. Devel­op­ing coun­tries have the biggest gaps in cov­er­age but wealth­i­er nations are not immune to this problem.

Accord­ing to the report, 60 per­cent of domes­tic work­ers in Italy are out­side the country’s social secu­ri­ty sys­tem, as are 30 per­cent of domes­tic work­ers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domes­tic work­ers — house­keep­ers, house clean­ers, nan­nies, child and elder care providers among oth­ers — are not cov­ered by many of the basic work­place pro­tec­tions that most employ­ees take for granted.

I would like that we stop being invis­i­ble to soci­ety,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a house­keep­er in Chica­go. Domes­tic work­ers want to be respect­ed and val­ued,” says Magde­le­na Zylin­s­ka, a domes­tic work­er, also in Chica­go who’s been clean­ing homes since 1997. That’s so lit­tle real­ly, just to be treat­ed with respect,” says Zylin­s­ka. Every­body who works wants that. We’re not ask­ing for any­thing extraordinary.”

His­tor­i­cal­ly, most U.S. domes­tic work­ers have been exclud­ed from labor pro­tec­tions grant­ed oth­er work­ers, explains Zylin­s­ka. But we are nor­mal peo­ple with chil­dren and finan­cial respon­si­bil­i­ties,” she says. That’s why I think it’s impor­tant that peo­ple rec­og­nize us as work­ers in gen­er­al and give us more sup­port and rights just as reg­u­lar workers.”

Both Bolaños and Zylin­s­ka are work­ing with groups that are part of the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance for pas­sage of an Illi­nois state law that would extend basic employ­ment pro­tec­tions to domes­tic work­ers. Among these pro­vi­sions are writ­ten con­tracts, sched­ules that spec­i­fy work hours, meal and oth­er breaks and cov­er­age by state laws that guar­an­tee min­i­mum wages, one day of rest in sev­en and those of the Illi­nois Human Rights Act.

If passed, the Illi­nois bill — known as the Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the sev­enth such U.S. state bill. So far only Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut, Hawaii, Mass­a­chu­setts, New York and Ore­gon have com­pa­ra­ble laws.

Nation­al­ly, U.S. domes­tic work­ers are cov­ered by Social Secu­ri­ty but not by the Occu­pa­tion­al Health and Safe­ty Act. Nor do they receive ben­e­fits of the Fam­i­ly and Med­ical Leave Act, Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act or the Age Dis­crim­i­na­tion in Employ­ment Act. And until 1974, when Con­gress extend­ed the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act to cov­er domes­tic work­ers, U.S. work­ers employed direct­ly by house­holds were with­out min­i­mum wage and over­time pro­tec­tions. In 2013, a new Depart­ment of Labor rule revised reg­u­la­tions to bet­ter cov­er domes­tic care­givers under the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act, but leaves U.S. domes­tic work­ers with­out many basic employ­ment protections.

We have no basic ben­e­fits like sick leave,” explains Sal­ly Rich­mond, who has worked for years pro­vid­ing child care and is a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er with the Alliance of Fil­ipinos for Immi­grant Rights and Empow­er­ment (AFIRE).

Poor work­ing con­di­tions, long hours and low wages

As described by the ILO report, Domes­tic work has tra­di­tion­al­ly been char­ac­ter­ized by poor work­ing con­di­tions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and lit­tle or no social pro­tec­tion. In oth­er words, domes­tic work­ers are exposed to con­di­tions that are far from the con­cept of decent work pro­mot­ed by the ILO. This sit­u­a­tion large­ly reflects the low social and eco­nom­ic val­ue soci­eties usu­al­ly place on this activ­i­ty. This is often reflect­ed by the absence of ade­quate laws and the lack of effec­tive enforce­ment of those that do exist.”

While domes­tic work is some of the low­est paid and least pro­tect­ed in the world — in some places earn­ing no more than half the aver­age wage — so many peo­ple do this work that, accord­ing to the ILO, if all domes­tic work­ers worked in one coun­try, that coun­try would be the world’s tenth largest employ­er.” Domes­tic work­ers also have some of the longest and most unpre­dictable work hours of any employees.

Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domes­tic work­ers are women, makes this work­force social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly vul­ner­a­ble to addi­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion, says the ILO. Extend­ing basic social pro­tec­tions to domes­tic work­ers is key to fight­ing pover­ty and pro­mot­ing gen­der equal­i­ty, said Philippe Mar­ca­dent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclu­sive Labour Mar­kets, Labour Rela­tions and Work­ing Con­di­tions Branch in a state­ment. The ILO report also points out that many of the esti­mat­ed 55 mil­lion women engaged in domes­tic work around the world — a num­ber that is like­ly an under­count — are also migrants, which adds to their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to dis­crim­i­na­tion and unfair labor practices.

Most of us are immi­grants and come from real­ly poor coun­tries,” says Zylin­s­ka. There are many domes­tic work­ers that are sup­port­ing not only their fam­i­lies here but also fam­i­lies in their [home] coun­tries.” Lan­guage dif­fer­ences and con­cerns about immi­gra­tion sta­tus add to the dai­ly employ­ment uncer­tain­ties for many domes­tic work­ers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.

ILO agree­ment on domes­tic work­ers rights — not rat­i­fied by the U.S.

As part of its efforts to improve work­ing con­di­tions and labor pro­tec­tions for domes­tic work­ers, in 2011 the ILO adopt­ed what’s called the Domes­tic Work­ers Con­ven­tion that requires coun­tries that rat­i­fy the agree­ment to ensure that domes­tic work­ers labor rights are no less favor­able” than those of oth­er work­ers — includ­ing with respect to social secu­ri­ty pro­tec­tion and mater­ni­ty pro­tec­tions. The Con­ven­tion out­lines basic labor rights to include work­ing hours, wage, occu­pa­tion­al health and safe­ty, child and migrant work­ers pro­tec­tions. It also under­lines the impor­tance of orga­ni­za­tions that rep­re­sent both domes­tic work­ers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 coun­tries have rat­i­fied the Con­ven­tion. The Unit­ed States is not among them.

Unlike those employed by more for­mal work­places — those out­side pri­vate homes — around the world, domes­tic work­ers typ­i­cal­ly lack com­pa­ra­ble enforce­able poli­cies on work­ing hours, occu­pa­tion­al health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, mater­ni­ty leave, work­place inspec­tions and access to infor­ma­tion on labor rights — includ­ing the right to orga­nize and form unions.

Many domes­tic work­ers are afraid to com­plain for fear of los­ing their job,” says Rich­mond. My hope is for this work to be pro­fes­sion­al­ized,” she says. Work­ing with the Union Lati­na, helps teach us how we can pro­tect our­selves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. We don’t have con­tracts, today I have a job, tomor­row I don’t have a job. It’s a very unreg­u­lat­ed busi­ness,” explains Zylniska.

But all these basic work­place and labor pro­tec­tions are fea­si­ble and afford­able, says the ILO report — even for mid­dle and low-income coun­tries. Yet while it doc­u­ments increas­ing social secu­ri­ty cov­er­age for domes­tic work­ers world­wide, these poli­cies often exclude migrant work­ers who make up at least one-sixth of this glob­al work­force. While fix­ing these prob­lems can’t be accom­plished by one sin­gle pol­i­cy mod­el, said senior ILO econ­o­mist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a state­ment, manda­to­ry cov­er­age (instead of vol­un­tary cov­er­age) is a cru­cial ele­ment for achiev­ing ade­quate and effec­tive cov­er­age under any system.”

While U.S. law pro­vides pro­tec­tions for domes­tic work­er not guar­an­teed in oth­er coun­tries, this house­hold-based work­force still lacks cov­er­age pro­vid­ed to oth­er Amer­i­can employ­ees. And giv­en the nature of the domes­tic work­place ensur­ing change even when poli­cies shift can be difficult.

The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been real­ly aware that con­di­tions for domes­tic work­ers don’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly change when a bill is signed into law,” says Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance cam­paign direc­tor, Andrea Mer­ca­do. To make these changes, It’s going to require a cul­ture shift and a pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion around domes­tic work and care work and why we should val­ue it,” she says. That’s kind of our strug­gle,” says Zylinska.

The Illi­nois Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights now has 21 Sen­ate and 33 House spon­sors. A spokesper­son for lead spon­sor state Sen­a­tor Ira Sil­ver­stein said the bill is expect­ed to be rein­tro­duced this month and could move swift­ly toward a vote. 

Eliz­a­beth Gross­man is the author of Chas­ing Mol­e­cules: Poi­so­nous Prod­ucts, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chem­istry, High Tech Trash: Dig­i­tal Devices, Hid­den Tox­i­cs, and Human Health, and oth­er books. Her work has appeared in a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, Yale e360, Envi­ron­men­tal Health Per­spec­tives, Moth­er Jones, Ensia, Time, Civ­il Eats, The Guardian, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Salon and The Nation.
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