Domestic worker

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"Servant" redirects here. For other uses, see Servant (disambiguation).
Memorial valuing the work of Maria Home, servant in Warwick Castle (1834)
A Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) Chinese ceramic figurine of a lady servant in a standard formal pose with hands covered by long sleeve cuffs in the traditional fashions

A domestic worker is a person who works within the employer's household. Domestic workers perform a variety of household services for an individual or a family, from providing care for children and elderly dependents to cleaning and household maintenance, known as housekeeping. Responsibilities may also include cooking, doing laundry and ironing, food shopping and other household errands. Some domestic workers live within the household where they work. The work and skill of servants whose work encompassed complex management tasks in large households have been highly valued and some have had their service recognised in memorials.

At its 301st Session (March 2008), the ILO Governing Body agreed to place an item on decent work for domestic workers on the agenda of the 99th Session of the International Labour Conference (2010) with a view to the setting of labour standards.[1] The conditions faced by domestic workers have varied considerably throughout history and in the contemporary world. In the course of twentieth-century movements for labour rights, women's rights and immigrant rights, the conditions faced by domestic workers and the problems specific to their class of employment have come to the fore. In 2011, the International Labour Organization adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers which covers decent work conditions for domestic workers. Recent ILO estimates based on national surveys and/or censuses of 117 countries, place the number of domestic workers at around 53 million. But the ILO itself states that "experts say that due to the fact that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million". The ILO also states that 83% of domestic workers are women and many are migrant workers.

Servant is an older English word for "domestic worker", though not all servants worked inside the home.


Constant Puyo: Montmartre published in Camera Work 16, 1906
A domestic servant ironing a lace doily with GE electric iron, ca. 1908

Domestic service, or the employment of people for wages in their employer's residence, was sometimes simply called "service". It evolved into a hierarchical system in various countries at various times.

The United Kingdom's Master and Servant Act 1823 was the first of its kind and influenced the creation of domestic service laws in other nations, although legislation tended to favour employers. However, before the passing of such Acts servants, and workers in general, had no protection in law. The only real advantage that domestic service provided was the provision of meals, accommodation, and sometimes clothes, in addition to a modest wage. Service was normally an apprentice system with room for advancement through the ranks.

In Britain this system peaked towards the close of the Victorian era, perhaps reaching its most complicated and rigidly structured state during the Edwardian period, which reflected the limited social mobility of the time. The equivalent in the United States was the Gilded Age.

Different domestic worker jobs[edit]


Many domestic workers are live-in domestics. Though they often have their own quarters, their accommodations are not usually as comfortable as those reserved for the family members. In some cases, they sleep in the kitchen or small rooms, such as a box room, sometimes located in the basement or attic.

Employers may require their domestic workers to wear a uniform, livery or other "domestic workers' clothes" when in their employers' residence. The uniform is usually simple, though aristocratic employers sometimes provided elaborate decorative liveries, especially for use on formal occasions. Female servants wore long, plain, dark-coloured dresses or black skirts with white belts and white blouses, and black shoes, and male servants and butlers would wear something from a simple suit, or a white dress shirt, often with tie, and knickers. In traditional portrayals, the attire of domestic workers especially was typically more formal and conservative than that of those whom they serve. For example, in films of the early 20th century, a butler might appear in a tailcoat, while male family members and guests appeared in lounge suits or sports jackets and trousers depending on the occasion. In later portrayals, the employer and guests might wear casual slacks or even jeans, while a male domestic worker wore a jacket and tie or a white dress shirt with black pants, necktie or bowtie, maybe even waistcoat, or a female domestic worker either a blouse and skirt (or trousers) or a uniform.

Current situation around the world[edit]

A valet in India, circa 1870

Domestic workers may live at home, though they are usually "live-in" domestics, meaning they receive room and board as part of their salaries. In some countries, because of the large gap between urban and rural incomes, and the lack of employment opportunities in the countryside, even an ordinary middle class urban family can afford to employ a full-time live-in servant. The majority of domestic workers in China, Mexico, India, and other populous developing countries, are people from the rural areas who are employed by urban families. America’s domestic home help workers, most of them female minorities, earn low wages and often receive no retirement or health benefits because they lack basic labor protections, according to a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 2,000 domestic workers in 14 American cities. The report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and affiliated groups found that nearly a quarter of nannies, caregivers, and home health workers make less than the minimum wage in the states in which they work, and nearly half – 48 percent – are paid less than needed to adequately support a family.[2]

In Guatemala, it is estimated that eight percent of all women work as domestic workers. They hardly have any legal protection. According to Guatemalan labour law, domestic work is “subject neither to a working time statute nor to regulations on the maximum number of working hours in a day”. Legally, domestic helpers are only entitled to ten hours of free time in 24 hours, and one day off per week. But very often, these minimal employment laws are disregarded, and so are basic civil liberties.[3]

In Brazil, domestic workers must be hired under a registered contract and have most of the rights of any other workers, which includes a minimum wage, remunerated vacations and a remunerated weekly day off. It is not uncommon, however, to hire servants without registering them. Since servants come almost always from the lower, uneducated classes, they are sometimes ignorant of their rights, especially in the rural zone. Nevertheless, domestics employed without a proper contract sometimes sue their employers to get compensation from abuses.[citation needed]

In India, domestic workers are known as maidservants, manservants, drivers and cooks.

In the United States, domestic workers are excluded from many of the legal protections afforded to other classes of worker, including the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.[4] Traditionally domestic workers have mostly been women and are likely to be immigrants.[5] A California bill formerly known as AB 889 nearly offered legal protections including mandatory overtime pay and breaks but was vetoed in September 2012 by Gov. Jerry Brown.[6]

In July 2011, at the annual International Labour Conference, held by the ILO, conference delegates adopted the Convention on Domestic Workers by a vote of 396 to 16, with 63 abstentions. The Convention recognizes domestic workers as workers with the same rights as other workers. On 26 April 2012, Uruguay was the first country to ratify the convention.[7][8]

Child domestic workers[edit]

Child maid servant in India. Child domestic workers are common in India, with the children often being sent by their parents to earn extra money, although it is banned by the government.

The use of children as domestic servants continues to be common in parts of the world, such as Latin America or parts of Asia. Such children are very vulnerable to exploitation: often they are not allowed to take breaks or are required to work long hours; many suffer from a lack of access to education, which can contribute to social isolation and a lack of future opportunity. UNICEF considers domestic work to be among the lowest status, and reports that most child domestic workers are live-in workers and are under the round-the-clock control of their employers.[9] Some estimates suggest that among girls, domestic work is the most common form of employment.[10] Child domestic work is common in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.[11][12] In Pakistan, since January 2010 to December 2013, 52 cases of tortures on child domestic workers are reported including 24 deaths.[13] It has been estimated that globally, at least 10 million children work in domestic labor jobs.[12]

Children face a number of risks that are common in domestic work service. The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour identified that these risks include:long and tiring working days; use of toxic chemicals; carrying heavy loads; handling dangerous items such as knives, axes and hot pans; insufficient or inadequate food and accommodation, and humiliating or degrading treatment including physical and verbal violence, and sexual abuse.[14]

See also: Child labour

Domestic work and international migration[edit]

Many countries import domestic workers from abroad, usually poorer countries, through recruitment agencies and brokers because their own nationals are no longer obliged or inclined to do domestic work. This includes most Middle Eastern countries, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. For most of these countries, the number of domestic workers runs into the hundreds of thousands. There are at least one million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia under the kafala system.

Major sources of domestic workers include Thailand, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia. Taiwan also imports domestic workers from Vietnam and Mongolia. Organizations such as Kalayaan support the growing number of these migrant domestic workers.

The migration of domestic workers can lead to several different effects both on the countries that are sending workers abroad and countries that are receiving domestic workers from abroad. One particular relationship between countries sending workers and countries receiving workers is that the sending country can be filling gaps in labor shortages of the receiving country.[15] This relationship can be potentially beneficial for both countries involved because the demand for labor is being met and fulfilled by workers’ demand for jobs. This relationship however can prove to be quite complicated and not always beneficial. When unemployment in a receiving country rises migrant domestic workers are not only no longer needed but their presence can be detrimental to domestic workers of that country.[15]

When international migration began to flourish the assumed migrant worker was typically considered to be a man. What studies are now starting to show is that women are dominating large numbers of the international migration patterns by taking up large percentages of domestic workers that leave their home country in search for work as a domestic laborer in another country.[16]

Women who migrate to take up work as domestic workers are motivated by different reasons and migrate to a variety of different outcomes. While for many women, domestic work abroad is the only opportunity to find work and provide an income for their families, domestic labor is a market they are forced to enter due to blocked mobility in their homelands.[17] Additionally, migrant domestic workers often have to face the stress of leaving family members behind in their home countries while they take up work abroad. Upward mobility is particularly difficult for migrant domestic workers because their opportunities are often limited by their illegal status putting a very definite limitation on the work that is available to them as well as their power to negotiate with employers [18]

Advocacy of the debt owed to migrant domestic workers as a group[edit]

Domestic worker in Colombia

Some argue that personal sacrifices of domestic workers has helped to underpin economic and social development globally. Ariel Salleh’s article “Ecological Debt: Embodied Debt,” defines embodied debt as “debt owed by the Global North and Global South to the ‘reproductive workers’ who produce and maintain the new labour force.”[19] According to the ILO, women constitute 80% of domestic workers.[20] The substantially high percentage of women in domestic work some argue results from this sector's association with motherhood, leading to an assumption that domestic work is by nature the work of females. In support, some argue that because domestic work occurs within the private sphere, which is seen as inherently feminine. This argument goes that the constructed link between domestic work and femininity [21] carries the implication that it is often referred to as ‘domestic help,’ and that domestic workers are referred to as ‘nannies’ or ‘maids.’ At least one author has argued that use of language compounded with the association with domestic work with femininities contributes to the exclusion of domestic work from the majority of national labour laws.[22]

Due to a lack of economic opportunity in the Global South, many women with families leave their countries of origin and their own families to pursue work in the Global North. When they arrive in their country of destination, their work often entails caring for another family (including children and the elderly). Domestic workers often migrate to financially support their immediate family, extended family, and even other members of their community. While enduring dangerous and demeaning working and living conditions in the North, the majority of their wages are remitted to their countries of origin.[23]

An additional argument has been made that because their work takes place within the private sphere, they are often rendered invisible and employers are able to withhold their travel documents, confining them to their employers’ home and inhibiting their access to legal redress. Those making this argument assert that the result of what they refer to as a power dynamic and an asserted lack of labour rights, is that domestic workers are often forbidden to contact their families and often go months, years, and even decades without seeing their families, whose lives their remittances are supporting.

Further, it has been argued that their ability to fill labour shortages and accept positions within the reproductive labour force that citizens of their host countries would reject underpins the development of the global capitalist system,[24] Simultaneously, and that they are enabling the beneficiaries of their remittances in the South to ascend the social ladder. To some, these arguments lead to a conclusion that both circumstances in the North and South constitute embodied debt through the improvement of one's life at the expense of another's hardship, and that the labour of such workers is too often not seen as work, due to the association of their gendered bodies with reproductive labour.

However, on June 17, 2011, after 70 years of lobbying by civil society groups, the ILO adopted a convention with the aim of protecting and empowering domestic workers. Much of lobbying that contributed toward the ratification of ILO C189 was done by domestic workers groups, demonstrating that they are not merely victims but agents of change. That only two labour receiving countries have ratified the convention has been argued by some to demonstrates the reluctance of governments to acknowledge what such advocates see as a debt owed by society to such workers and to repay that perceived debt.[25]

Such advocates asseret that the ratification and enforcement of ILO C189 would mean that migrant domestic workers would enjoy the same labour rights as other more 'masculine' fields as well as the citizens of their destination countries. An incomplete list of basic rights guaranteed by ILO C189 under Article 7 includes: maximum working hours; fixed minimum wages; paid leave; provision of food and accommodation; and weekly rest periods. Guaranteeing these rights to migrant domestic workers would not constitute repayment the embodied debt owed to them, but they are entitled to these rights as they are both workers and human beings.[26]

Social effects of domestic work[edit]

As women currently dominate the domestic labor market throughout the world, they have learned to navigate the system of domestic work both in their own countries and abroad in order to maximize the benefits entering the domestic labor market can bring them. Women’s ability to find a place in the workforce through their roles as domestic workers has proven to have both its advantages and its limitations.

Among the disadvantages of working as a domestic worker is the fact that women working in this sector are working in an area often regarded as a private sphere.[27] Working in this private sphere can prove to be divisive for women as the type of work may not allow them to develop unity among other women workers. Feminist critics of women working in the domestic sphere argue that this woman dominated market is reinforcing gender inequalities by potentially creating mistress-servant relationships between domestic workers and their employers and continuing to put women in a position of lesser power.[27] More criticism points out that working in a privatized sphere robs domestic workers of the enjoyment of the advantages brought by socialized work and working in the public sphere.[18]

Additionally, domestic laborers face disadvantages physically; the invisibility of their work from the public sphere has caused an ideological decline in their status and an increase in their isolation. Also, the intangible nature of their service and the speed at which it is consumed increases the dispensability and thereby decreased value of the work that they perform.[28] The level of isolation women face also depends on the type of domestic work they are involved with. Live-in nannies for example sacrifice much of their own independence and can face a difficult level of isolation that comes with living away from their own families and with a family that they are not a part of.[29]

While working in a women dominated privatized world can prove to be disadvantageous for domestic workers, many women have learned how to navigate the world of domestic labor and have been able to use and help each other move upward economically. In trying to break into the sphere of domestic work women find that informal networks of friends and families are the most successful and commonly used ways of finding and securing jobs.[30] These informal networks prove that although they are working in a very privatized and isolated occupation they still have the ability to connect with other workers and create social networks that will help support them.

Without the security of legal protection, many women who work without papers are vulnerable to abuse. Some have to perform tasks considered degrading showing a manifestation of employer power over worker powerlessness. Employing domestic work from foreign countries can perpetuate the idea that domestic or service work is reserved for other social or racial groups and plays into the stereotype that it is work for inferior groups of people.[15]

For immigrant women first breaking into the domestic labor market can prove to be difficult. To break through many immigrant women follow the practice of subcontracting arrangements in which they subcontract their services to other more established women workers creating an important apprenticeship type of learning experience that can vault them into better and more independent opportunities in the future.[18] Women who work as domestic workers also have the advantage of internal occupation mobility. Once established they have the option of accepting jobs from multiple employers increasing their income and their experience and most importantly their ability to negotiate prices with their employers.[28]

Trends in domestic work[edit]

The domestic work industry is currently dominated throughout the world by women.[31]

While the domestic work industry is advantageous for women in that it provides them a sector that they have substantial access to, it can also prove to be disadvantageous by reinforcing gender inequality through the idea that domestic work is an industry that should be dominated by women. Within the domestic work industry the much smaller proportion of jobs that is occupied by men are not the same jobs that are typically occupied by women. Within the child care industry men make up only about 3–6% of all workers.[32] Additionally, in the child care industry men are more likely to fill roles that are not domestic in nature but administrative such as a managerial role in a day care center.[33]

While the domestic work industry was once believed to be an industry that belonged to a past type of society and did not belong in a modern world, trends are showing that although elements of the domestic work industry have been changing the industry itself has shown no signs of fading away, but only signs of transformation.[32] There are several specific causes that are credited to continuing the cycle of the demand for domestic work. One of these causes is that with more women taking up full-time jobs, a dually employed household with children places a heavy burden on parents. It is argued however that this burden wouldn't result in the demand for outside domestic help if men and women were providing equal levels of effort in domestic work and child rearing within their own home.[27]

The demand for domestic workers has also become largely fulfilled by migrant domestic workers from other countries who flock to wealthier nations to fulfill the demand for help at home.[31][34] This trend of domestic workers flowing from poorer nations to richer nations creates a relationship that on some levels encourages the liberation of one group of people at the expense of the exploitation of another.[31] Although domestic work has far from begun to fade from society, the demand for it and the people who fill that demand has changed drastically over time.

Notable domestic workers[edit]

Alonzo Fields, butler at the White House

Domestic workers in art[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Resource guide on domestic workers". International Labour Organization. Retrieved October 4, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Without Labor Protections, Domestic Workers Earn Low Wages And Receive No Benefits". ThinkProgress. Retrieved October 4, 2013. 
  3. ^ Verfürth, Eva-Maria (n.d.). "Hard work new opportunities". D+C Development and Cooperation No. 09 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-10. 
  4. ^ See the UN Human Rights Committee's report, "Domestic Workers' Rights in the United States."
  5. ^ Graff, Daniel A. (n.d.). "Domestic Work and Workers". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved 2009-08-31. 
  6. ^ Bello, Grace (January 17, 2013). "The Home Economics of Domestic Workers". 
  7. ^ "Uruguay First Country to Ratify C189". 2012-05-03. Retrieved 2012-05-11. 
  8. ^ "Domestice Worker Chart". ThinkProgress. Retrieved October 4, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Counting Cinderellas Child Domestic Servants – Numbers and Trends". 
  10. ^ "Child domestic workers: Finding a voice". Retrieved October 4, 2013. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  13. ^ "The ISJ demands immediate ban on child domestic labour in Pakistan | The Institute for Social Justice". ISJ. 2014-01-07. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  14. ^ "Ending child labour in domestic work and protecting young workers from abusive working conditions". 
  15. ^ a b c "Who needs migrant workers? Introduction to the analysis of staff shortages, immigration and public policy". Bridget Anderson and Martin Ruhs, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) University of Oxford Working draft: 11th May 2009
  16. ^ WOMEN AND MIGRATION: The Social Consequences of Gender, Silvia Pedraza, Department of Sociology and Program in American Culture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109
  17. ^ INTERNATIONAL MIGRATION, DOMESTIC WORK, AND CARE WORK Undocumented Latina Migrants in Israel, Rebeca Raijman, University of Haifa, Israel, SILVINA SCHAMMAH-GESSER and ADRIANA KEMP, Tel Aviv University
  18. ^ a b c "Ways to Come, Ways to Leave : Gender, Mobility, and Il/legality among Ethiopian Domestic Workers in Yemen", Gender & Society; 2010 24: 237, Marina De Regt
  19. ^ Ariel Salleh, ed. “Ecological Debt: Embodied Debt,” in Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice (Pluto Press: London, 2009) 5.
  20. ^ Mark Tran. "ILO urges better pay and conditions for 53 million domestic workers | Global development". Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  21. ^ Jindy Pettman. “Migration,” in Gender Matters in Global Politics ed. Laura Shepherd (Routlege, New York: 2010) 257.
  22. ^ Salleh, “Ecological Debt: Embodied Debt,” 3.
  23. ^ Jindy Pettman, “Migration,” in Gender Matters in Global Politics ed. Laura Shepherd (Routlege, New York: 2010) 257.
  24. ^ Pettman, Jindy, “Migration,” 257.
  25. ^ "Ratify and Implement ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers Now!". 2012-06-16. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ a b c Arat-Koc, S. (1992) ‘In the Privacy of Our Own Home: Foreign Domestic Workers as a Solution to the Crisis of the Domestic Sphere in Canada’, P. Connelly and P. Armstrong (eds) Feminism in Action: Studies in Political Economy, Toronto: Canadian Studies Press.
  28. ^ a b Regulating the Unregulated?: Domestic Workers' Social Networks, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Social Problems, Vol. 41, No. 1, Special Issue on Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in America (Feb., 1994), pp. 50–64
  29. ^ Pratt, Geraldine. "From Registered Nurse to Registered Nanny: Discursive Geographies of Filipina Domestic Workers in Vancouver, BC*." Economic Geography 75.3 (1999): 215–236.
  30. ^ Andall, Jacqueline. "Organizing domestic workers in Italy: the challenge of gender, class and ethnicity." Gender and Migration in Southern Europe (2000): 145–171.
  31. ^ a b c "Feminists and Domestic Workers; Muchachas No More: Domestic Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean" by Elsa M. Chaney; Mary Garcia Castro
  32. ^ a b Susan B. Murray, "'We all love Charles': men in child care and the social construction of gender", Gender & Society; (1996) 10: 368
  33. ^ Silvey, R. (2004), "Transnational Migration and the Gender Politics of Scale: Indonesian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia". Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography
  34. ^ Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1989; by Phyllis Palmer

Further reading[edit]

  • The Duties of Servants; by a member of the aristocracy, author of 'Manners and Rules of Good Society'. London: F. Warne & Co., 1894
  • A Few Rules for the Manners of Servants in Good Families. Ladies' Sanitary Association, 1901
  • The Servants' Practical Guide: a handbook of duties and rules; by the author of 'Manners and Tone of Good Society'. London: Frederick Warne & Co., [1880]
    • The Management of Servants: a practical guide to the routine of domestic service; by the author of “Manners and Tone of Good Society.” (the same work under a different title)
  • Dawes, Frank (1973) Not in Front of the Servants: domestic service in England 1850–1939. London: Wayland ISBN 0-85340-287-6
  • Evans, Siân (2011) Life below Stairs in the Victorian and Edwardian Country House. National Trust Books
    • --do.--"Yells, Bells and Smells ... from royal visits ... to the case of the cook and the freezer", in: National Trust Magazine; Autumn 2011, pp. 70–73

External links[edit]