They “work in the homes of others for pay, providing a range of domestic services: They sweep and clean, wash clothes and dishes; shop and cook; care for children or the elderly, sick, and disabled,” Kennedy School lecturer Martha Chen writes of domestic workers. Mostly but not exclusively women, they are often “invisible,” “isolated,” “exploited,” and “undervalued,” yet they are also “essential,” both because they perform vital chores and because they enable “others to work outside the home, thus facilitating the operation of the labor market and the functioning of the economy.”
Chen’s paper, “Recognizing Domestic Workers, Regulating Domestic Work,” was written for a 2010 conference at McGill University, in Montreal, as part of a worldwide effort to bring recognition, protection, and fair compensation to these workers, who are often relegated to the lowest end of the pay scale. Part of her goal was to provide data and data analysis, to reveal how important the world’s tens of millions of domestic workers are to the economies of the countries they inhabit. Domestic workers represent “a large and growing sector of employment,” Chen says, accounting for 4 to 10 percent of the total workforce in developing countries, where labor costs are low, and 1 to 2.5 percent of the total workforce in developed countries. “Having reliable statistics on the size and scale of a group of workers is really important,” Chen writes. “Documenting, for instance, that four percent of all urban workers in India are domestic workers makes people take notice of this sector.”
Gaining recognition for domestic workers and respect for their contributions to society is merely the first step. The next step is to improve working conditions and make sure that laborers receive adequate wages and benefits. For that to happen, Chen says, domestic workers will have to organize. Until they do so, employers will have little incentive to treat them the same as other employees, granting them reasonable salaries, overtime pay, vacation time, and other benefits. Having gained political clout through unions or other labor associations, domestic workers will be better positioned to persuade their respective governments to enact legislation affording them the same protections — both legal and social — afforded to those working outside private homes.
Enforcement of such legislation, if and when it is passed, would be problematic. Even in countries where domestic workers are covered by law, they are often not covered in practice, Chen claims. One sticking point has been allowing labor inspectors to come into private homes on a routine basis, though she sees a fairly easy way around that. “Rather than having inspectors randomly entering homes, they’d only have to do so when a grievance is filed,” she suggests.
The path from the “informal” and unregulated employment relationships that characterize most domestic work today to more formal arrangements that protect workers’ rights is generally long and arduous. “Formalization is not a one-time process involving a specified set of steps,” Chen explains, but should be seen instead “as a gradual, ongoing process.” To illustrate, she cites a rallying cry for an international statement in support of domestic workers — in 1948. The statement did not come until more than 60 years later, at the June 2011 International Labor Conference, where delegates overwhelmingly adopted a “convention” granting domestic workers the same rights and protections given to other employees.
“It was a milestone victory,” Chen says, but after the celebrations died down, delegates of domestic workers and their organizations faced the task of getting their own countries to ratify the convention or implement at least some of its provisions. In the United States, for example, the National Association of Domestic Workers is working trying at the state level to secure passage of legislation like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which took effect in New York in November 2010.
The future certainly looks brighter than it did just a few years ago, Chen says. “There is reason for hope. But we also recognize that the real work lies ahead.”
— by Steve Nadis