First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 41
Domestic workers

Is domestic work care work?

16 June 2023

Many countries face a shortage of care workers. In an effort to rectify this some are reassessing the conditions, pay and status of these workers. Yet, too often, improvements exclude those classified as domestic workers, even though they often undertake care work, either exclusively or as part of a broader range of household tasks.

June 16th is International Domestic Workers Day, marking the passing, in 2011, of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the first international labour standard that recognized domestic work as equivalent to all other kinds of work. 12 years after the Convention was agreed, why is the role of domestic workers still underappreciated, and how can their contribution to the care economy can be properly recognized?




Hello, and welcome to another edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

It's likely that during our lives, almost all of us will need

the services and skills of care workers.

Yet, one thing that became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic

is that this type of work is frequently undervalued,

both in terms of status as well as pay and conditions.

This is particularly the case for those who do care

work in the private homes of others often as part of a broader portfolio

of home-based tasks.

I'm talking, of course, about domestic workers.

Some countries are now reevaluating the status and conditions

of their care workers as part of the efforts

to attract more workers to the sector and meet growing demand.

However, there is a danger that those classified as domestic workers

will not benefit from this process.

June is the month in which we mark International Domestic Workers Day.

This celebrates the passing in 2011 of ILO Convention 189

on decent work for domestic workers.

This was the first international labor standard

that recognized domestic workers for what it is, which is real work.

This is an appropriate moment to look at the role of domestic workers

and how their contribution to the care economy

can be recognized properly.

With me today are Claire Hobden, who is ILO Technical Specialist

on domestic workers and other vulnerable groups,

Mimi Jalmasco, a migrant domestic worker in the United Kingdom

with the organization Voice of Domestic Workers,

and Ai-jen Poo, who is president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance

in the United States.

Welcome to you all, and thank you very much

for joining us on this podcast.

Mimi, can I start with you?

You are our migrant domestic worker on this podcast.

Can you give us an idea of the range of tasks

that you and your colleagues carry out and perhaps those

that would qualify as care work?


Domestic workers, we are multi-skilled workers.

We are not only doing the cleaning or housekeeping,

but we are also doing elderly care and child care as well.

With me, I am a full-time nanny with a German family looking after

two and a half-year-old girl.

Presumably, you also do a lot of cooking and cleaning tasks

as well, which would be indirect support for care work.


Most of us here in UK are all doing not only nannying job,

not only elderly care but also aside from that,

are also doing cooking, laundry, ironing, it's all-around,

housekeeping as well, cleaning.

Claire, do you think there is enough recognition of the fact

that not only are the core care, you might say

the direct care services part of a domestic worker's work portfolio,

but also these indirect tasks which, of course, really are part

-of the care work portfolio? -Absolutely.

I think that, in general, people have an understanding of domestic work

as being "only cleaning

or only taking care of the cooking",

for example.

The ILO has a definition of care work that includes

both direct and indirect care services.

I think this became so abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic,

when the cleanliness of homes, and employers were very keen

on ensuring that their households were free of the virus.

That whole environment, I think, taking care of the environment

was really key.

That is a form of indirect care work in our book.

I think it's also really key in ensuring a healthy lifestyle.

If you're going to be preparing food for a family,

you want to make sure that that food is healthy.

It's another form of provision of an indirect care service.

Ai-jen, do you think that there is enough appreciation

of how important care work is for the broader economy?

It seems that it is often regarded as something that's nice to have

but not particularly crucial, whereas a lot of people would say,

"Well, care work is freeing up other people

to take part in the economy outside the home."


We call care jobs job enabling jobs because they're

so fundamental to the economy.

I think we really saw that underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic

when in the United States alone in the two months,

when the shutdown was begun in March and April of 2020,

4 million women were pushed out of the workforce

because of caregiving challenges, because of their lack

or loss of access to care work.

It just goes to show how fundamental care jobs are

to the functioning of the economy and to the topic of the future of work.

These are jobs that are undeniably jobs that will be a huge share

of the jobs of the future.

These are jobs that can't be outsourced and won't be automated.

No matter what you ask ChatGPT, it's not going to be able

to take care of your child.

There's a clear demand in ageing societies.

In the US alone, we have 4 million people turning 65 ageing into retirement

and living longer than ever, thanks to advances

in healthcare and technology.

And we have 4 million babies born per year as millennials have children.

We need more care than ever before.

It really is care workers, a strong care workforce

in partnership with family caregivers, who are going

to be the foundation of our economy going forward.

And domestic workers are the ones who are providing those care services

in the home, which is the future of care work

as more of us want to age at home and in place,

and in the community.

We're going to be relying upon care workers, domestic workers

specifically to do that work.

Why is it then that

domestic workers seem to be in danger

of being cut out of this re-evaluation of the value of care?

I thought Convention 189 was supposed to change attitudes as well as

change policies.

I think that legacies and patterns of exclusion

are incredibly difficult to break out of but this really is our generational moment

and opportunity to do that.

Convention 189 is an absolutely powerful tool to do that.

We have an opening from the pandemic where each of us lived

through our own version of a care crisis and it's disruptions in culture like that,

that allow us the greatest opportunity to shift culture for the next era.

I think now is our moment and conversations

like the one we're having right now are exactly how we disrupt

the pattern of exclusion.

Claire, why do you think this is?

I think you put it well that ILO Convention 189 was supposed

to change all of that and it has in a lot of ways.

The Convention really put domestic work on the map as a category of work,

as a legitimate occupation, and it recognized

that domestic workers should have the same rights as other workers.

That is essential.

We already have upwards of 30 countries that have ratified the Convention.

Domestic workers are recognized in the laws as workers

in a very high number of countries, I think it's roughly 88% of the countries

that we looked at in a recent study.

But, unfortunately, first of all, there's two problems.

First of all, there are a lot of exclusions

still in most countries around the world.

There are exclusions wholesale where domestic workers are not covered

by the laws at all.

There are other countries where they're partially covered

by the laws but they're excluded from specific provisions,

and more often than not, they're excluded from a lot of social security rights

like maternity protection, like pensions that really also form

the nuts and bolts of care rights so to speak.

That's one category of problems.

The other one is implementation of these rights.

Even where domestic workers have labour and social security rights,

they're often not applied in practice and this, to me,

is the reflection that, on a social level,

we still haven't fully recognized

domestic work as real work.

We haven't recognized the extent to which our family lives,

our societies, and our economy is dependent on the work of domestic workers.

Now that countries are progressively adopting

new care policies, they're doing so in recognition of the care needs

of the societies, their citizens,

but they're not necessarily recognizing

that domestic workers are delivering the bulk of these services

in most countries.

We estimate that, of all care workers, that domestic workers represent

about 22% of them at the global level, but we know that in countries

with very few care institutions like early child care institutions

or elder care institutions, that domestic workers are

very likely providing even 80% of care services.

It's really a very important sector in the care economy and I think

the risk of excluding them really puts in danger

the whole care system really.

Mimi, let me ask you, how do you think

that your care work is regarded?

Do you think it's appreciated fully as part of the role of domestic workers,

not just by your actual employer but by your society more generally?

Here in UK,

we are not categorized as a care worker.

Actually, we experienced discrimination, especially during the pandemic,

because during the pandemic, they asked us IDs,

proofs that we are really care worker.

We're in care work jobs.

We're already doing those jobs.

We are looking after elderlies.

We are looking after children.

We are also very vulnerable.

There was a time that we were already refused

to be vaccinated because we can't show any proof

that we are really working as a care worker.

Oh, I see.

It only allowed care workers

who were formerly employed in institutions

-Yes. -to get the special care worker category.

Claire and Ai-jen, what Mimi describes, is that pretty standard worldwide?

Again, I think that our estimates show that there's an increasing number

of countries that are extending labour and social security

to domestic workers but still, 81% of domestic workers worldwide

are informally employed.

That means that they don't have effective access to social security rights

and therefore, also to the package of labour rights.

In the US, domestic workers have been subjected to many generations

of exclusion from basic labour rights like the right

to unionize and collectively bargain, the right to a minimum wage,

but over the years, we have really organized to change that.

We have passed legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers

in 10 states throughout the country.

We have introduced federal legislation called

the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Congress

and have over 130 co-sponsors.

We're chipping away at this exclusion.

I think the most important development of the last three years

is that care workers' organizations, including

the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have joined together.

Just three weeks ago, we organized the first-ever

National Care Workers Summit where early childhood educators,

child care workers, domestic workers, direct care workers of all stripes

came together for the first time in Washington.

It really catalyzed the White House taking

a huge step forward by signing the most sweeping executive order

in the history of the White House of any administration

to protect the rights of care workers.

Now, if I was going to put the counter-argument to this,

I would say that care workers who work in institutions

like senior citizens' homes or children's homes, quite often,

they have to have qualifications.

They have to have sat exams.

They maybe even have to be members of particular bodies,

and they get checked regularly to ensure that they maintain those standards.

This is not something that normally happens to care

work carried out on domestic premises, e.g. in the home, and frequently,

domestic workers don't have those kind of qualifications.

Therefore, care workers institutions deserve better conditions

than those who work in people's homes.

What will be the counter-argument to that?

A part of the economy like the care economy that is so vast,

but for so long has been treated like a wild west,

where there's no standards, there's no guidelines,

that we should actually be imagining how we create

career pathways and opportunities for training and career advancement

throughout the entire care economy.

There's a tremendous amount of skill that care workers like Mimi,

domestic workers like Mimi bring to the job every day

that have gone unrecognized because of the way that we've devalued care work.

There is a culture shift that is about recognizing the skill

that is involved in doing this work, whether or not there are

official certifications.

There should be official certifications and pathways

that allow for domestic workers and other care workers

to receive the kind of training and skills enhancement that they need

to do their jobs well.

-Claire, would you like to add to that? -Yes, exactly.

I was going to add that we're increasingly looking

at the issue of skills recognition and skills training

in domestic work and indeed, I think that the big gap here

is really in the recognition of the skills that domestic workers bring to the table

when they are caring for children or for the elderly,

or preparing meals for 2, 3, 5, 10, 20 years.

These are skills that are developed, that are still not recognized.

When we talk about recognition, it's not just a social sort of head

nod to the skills that domestic workers bring to the table.

We're really talking about needing to recognize these skills

with a form of certification and with the decent working conditions

and the wages that should be attached to that level of experience

that comes from the job.

It's really a whole package that should also be integrated

into care policies.

When we're talking about trying to increase

the number of skilled care workers, for us,

it's also about recognizing and certifying the existing skills of domestic workers.

Claire, you have a good overview of the global picture

since you're working at the ILO.

Do we need somehow to get policymakers to reevaluate

their approach to this because, in the end,

if there's going to be a change in the conditions for care workers,

it's going to have to start with policies, doesn't it?

We definitely will need to ensure that in any care policies that are adopted

that the entirety of the care workforce is taken into account,

including domestic workers.

We see also a lot of bottom-up approaches to this.

I think that there's some very interesting initiatives

by domestic workers' unions, and in a few countries,

organizations of employers of domestic workers.

These are households that have come together

to form associations to represent their needs

because these are care services that they ultimately need.

Some of these employers' organizations also really recognize how important it is

to ensure decent working conditions for the domestic workers in order

to receive the quality care services that they require.

There are a few examples where there are domestic workers' organizations

and employers' organizations who have come together

to also advocate for care policies that are of decent quality

but also affordable for households, so really lobbying the government hand

in hand to make sure that these care policies are inclusive

and take into account their needs.

Of course, we're going to need to keep and attract more people into the sector

because I think all the predictions are that we're going

to need more care workers in the future for all sorts of reasons,

so we need to make conditions good, right?

That's right. Absolutely.

If we want to envision a future of work,

where countries or all families have

the care services that they need then, yes, we're talking about

workforce development that is also based on decent working conditions,

which is why again, Convention 189

is really central to any initiative on care.

We want those rights to decent work

that are enshrined in Convention 189

-to be the foundation of the care policies. -Great.

Well, look, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there

because we're a bit out of time for this podcast but I'd like

to thank all three of you for taking part.

My guests today have been Mimi Jalmasco, Ai-Jen Poo, and Claire Hobden.

Thank you very much for joining us, and I hope you will come back soon

for another edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

For now, goodbye.