DomEQUAL: the conditions of domestic workers around the world

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), almost 70 million people worldwide are currently employed in domestic work. 80% of these people are women, and the fight for their rights began only 20 years ago. Activists and trade unions have pushed for the recognition of rights in this field of work, achieving great results, such as convention n.189 on decent domestic work issued by ILO in 2011. Despite these efforts, there is still a lot that can be done to ensure that one of the most invisible workforces in the world is adequately valued.

Domestic work is often "informal", not regarded as a real job, and therefore undeserving of rights; additionally, people employed in this field — who often belong to disadvantaged groups — are widely exploited all over the world. Domestic workers take care of houses, children and elderly people, and they often move from one family to another, which leaves them with little time to live a life of their own. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this category was amongst those who were hit the hardest, both on a business and a private level. 

In the Global South, domestic work is particularly important and employs women who belong to the most vulnerable social groups: migrants, peope with a low level of education, peope who are discriminated against due to their race and/or caste. Labour fragility, combined with discrimination, increases intersectional inequality. In this disadvantaged position, it is difficult for female workers to unionise and build a collective political voice.

'DomEQUAL: A Global Approach to Paid Domestic Work and Global Inequalities' (2016–21) is a project led by Ca' Foscari sociologist Sabrina Marchetti, together with Daniela Cherubini and Giulia Garofalo Geymonat. It is funded by a Starting Grant of the European Council. The DomEQUAL team analysed the working conditions and struggles of domestic workers in nine countries and three continents. In Asia: India, the Philippines and Taiwan; in South America: Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil; in Europe: Spain, Italy and Germany.

The results were presented in the open-access publication “Global Domestic Workers: Intersectional Inequalities and Struggles for Rights” published by the Bristol University Press, and in the YouTube playlist “Domestic Workers: Intersectionality in Action - Web Doc Series”, which contains 6 short web documentaries where activists get interviewed on various topics concerning their protests.

"The goal of DomEQUAL,” explains Professor Marchetti, “is to help understand the multilevel transformation that has turned domestic work into an object of governance, conflict and negotiation, triggering processes of political subjectivation and collective organisation by a group of female workers traditionally seen as 'impossible to organise'. In our approach, the fight for the rights of domestic workers was used as a starting point to explore the transformation of intersectional inequalities in a global context. Some of the issues that have emerged may contribute to a better understanding of the organised protests not only of domestic workers, but also of other marginalised groups.”

The researchers have taken into consideration the existing gap between global rights and local practices. In Taiwan, India and Spain, for example, domestic workers have the support of international organisations, but lack support from the local government. Their rights are opposed not only by the interests of employers, but also by conservative parties that rule parliaments and by intermediaries such as agencies, whose private interests are upheld by the status quo. Domestic workers are perceived as minorities (lower caste people in India; migrants in Taiwan and Spain) whose interests are not shared by society as a whole.

From a legislative point of view, in Italy and Germany there is formal adherence to the ILO Convention n.189, but there is no real implementation of its principles. Furthermore, social movements are not particularly active on this front and domestic work is mainly seen as an issue for foreign workers (who often do not have a residence permit), and therefore of little interest to the majority of people.

Another topic of the research was the analysis of intersectional policies that can be put into practice by groups that are marginalised on multiple levels. In the case of domestic work, activists have attributed a different political importance to factors such as gender, class, ethnicity, caste, migrant status, and so on. This approach varies not only according to national contexts or to different organisation, but also within the same organisation wirht respect to different aspects of a person’s activity, or even over time. As a result, the role of organised groups for the upholding of the rights of domestic workers transcends the realm of the fight for labour rights, and involves other issues, such as gender, identity, self-esteem, migration, anti-racism, access to education, political views, economic independence, health, sexuality, personal and family well-being. 

In Colombia, for example, the movement of Afro-Colombian domestic workers is based on ethnicity and on an intersectional discourse, which considers domestic work as being conditioned by gender, social class and ethnicity. 

Brazilian activits have “rekindled” the heritage of the national anti-racist movement, focussing on a tradition of movements against slavery, the oppression of women and of black people. In Ecuador, racial discrimination is regarded only as an added element with respect to gender and class issues, but not as an intrinsic characteristic of domestic workers. 

The researchers have also examined the role that feminist groups and women’s rights groups play in defending the rights of domestic workers, who are marginalised on multiple levels. Despite the fact that each feminist movement is different, these groups are often perceived as being distant from — although not opposed to —  the activits for the rights of domestic workers. At the same time, feminist and women’s rights activists (such as lawyers, NGO activits and politicians) are often alone in promoting the causes of domestic wokers. 

DomEQUAL focuses on domestic work to offer a wider perspective on rights. Among other things, DomEQUAl criticises the approach that regards social struggles in terms of “categories” and that separates women’s rights movemets from movements based on class and from anti-racist movements. Because oppression and discrimination are multi-dimensional, they must be challenged by perspectives that encompass multiple elements. The configuration of this multi-dimensional approach must change depending on the context.

Author: Federica Scotellaro / Translator: Joangela Ceccon