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A win-win scenario? The fight for domestic workers’ rights benefits employers too

Employers can be key actors in the struggle for decent work for domestic workers, and this does not need to be against their interests.

Policy debate

Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?

We asked experts in the field of domestic workers' rights to respond to the following: 'Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?' This is what they answered.

Respondents

Claire Hobden & Moriah Shumpert
International Labour Organization

Saba Waheed & Lucero Herrera
UCLA Labor Center

Bridget Anderson
University of Bristol

Andrea Londoño
Fundación Bien Humano

Elizabeth Tang & Marie-José L. Tayah
International Domestic Workers Federation

Julius Cainglet & Ronahlee Asuncion
Federation of Free Workers & University of Philippines Diliman

Rosa Navarro & Mechtild Hart
Latino Union & DePaul University

Ilana Berger
Hand in Hand

Photo by Jennifer N. Fish

The experience of households as employers of domestic workers remains largely undocumented to date. At first glance, the interests of domestic workers and those of their employers may seem at odds, with decent work deficits in the sector indicating that employers largely win in this labour relation. Yet a closer look at employers – their needs, preferences, and organisations – suggests that their interests are in many ways aligned with those of domestic workers. Employers seek better access to quality care, and domestic workers strive to provide quality care – with decent working conditions. Recognising decent work as a prerequisite for quality care, as well as the challenges to households to take up the employment relationship, many employers and their organisations have sought to improve working conditions and formalise the sector through voice and representation of employers in social dialogue – including through alliances with workers’ organisations to advocate for higher public investment in the sector – and by providing services to households to facilitate the employment relationship. Organisations of employers of domestic workers can therefore be key players in achieving decent work for domestic workers.

What employers want: scoping the size and nature of demand for domestic work

The needs and preferences of employers of domestic workers have an important influence on the availability and quality of care services on the market, and crucially on the working conditions of domestic workers. The way in which those needs are met can therefore have market-wide impacts. Employers typically hire domestic workers to satisfy household needs for the care of children, the elderly, or ill household members. The size of demand at the national level also depends at least in part on growing female labour participation, rapidly ageing populations, and the size, affordability, and efficacy of collective care services, whether publicly or privately provided. Markets are failing to meet this demand however, in part because the working conditions are too poor to attract qualified professionals.

In this context, two needs of employing households emerge: uncertainty as to how to manage the employment relationship; and access to affordable, quality personal and household services. While working conditions are highly influenced by the employer’s ability to manage the employment relationship, research shows that employers often feel a lack of support, investment, and guidance from relevant authorities when doing so. This leaves employers to learn from one another, or from intermediaries, about how to manage the employment relationship in their household.

Evidence often suggests that most households that employ domestic workers can indeed afford to pay the minimum wage.

A second key concern of employers is access to affordable quality care for themselves and their families. This concern influences debates around wage setting for the domestic work sector. The argument that a minimum wage for domestic workers may make domestic work unaffordable for households is an important one; however, evidence often suggests that most households that employ domestic workers can indeed afford to pay the minimum wage. For lower income households, governments can provide subsidies to cut costs to households while ensuring decent wages for workers. So while affordability is at the epicentre of worker-employer disputes, the domestic workers’ demand for higher wages and the employer’s need for affordability do not necessarily need to be mutually exclusive.

Avenues for alliances: the role of employers’ organisations

While organisations of employers of domestic workers remain rare, where they exist, they play a key role in addressing the challenges above, first by representing the collective voice of employers in social dialogue, and second by providing assistance to households in managing the employment relationship. They also engage in joint advocacy for increased public investment in the domestic work sector, as a means of bridging the interests of both workers and employers. These efforts promote formalisation in ways that result in improvements for domestic workers and employers alike. 

Representative organisations of employers have played a key role in collective bargaining as a means of improving working conditions and promoting formalisation within the domestic work sector. The collective agreements that result from such negotiations set up standards on wages, working conditions, and benefits for domestic workers while also establishing employment practices that work towards formality.  Such agreements can also serve as a means for increasing subsidies to make care more affordable. For example, one collective agreement included increased access to government subsidies to cover the costs of in-home assistance.

Domestic workers’ demand for higher wages and the employer’s need for affordability do not necessarily need to be mutually exclusive.

Employers’ advocacy groups have also promoted decent working conditions through coalitions, normally to advocate for higher government subsidies, which are often insufficient. For example, in the early 1990s and 2000s unionised home-care workers in the USA were able to gain government subsidies to improve access to affordable care and quality jobs by building coalitions with organisations representing the elderly and disabled as recipients of home-based care.

Employers’ organisations also offer services – such as administrative support, legal assistance, and dispute resolution – that build capacity among individual employers in managing employment relationships and ensuring decent working conditions. Many of these services promote the formalisation of the sector by providing written contracts and increased access to social insurance schemes. For example, Swedish organisations Almega and KFO offer management and leadership trainings to build individual employers’ capacity to manage employment relationships and gain legal awareness. Employers’ organisations in Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and Uruguay all provide administrative support to members through model employment contracts and guides. Hand in Hand in the USA and LACCU in Uruguay share best practices and answer frequently asked questions. As organisations of domestic service agencies, Almega and KFO also offer insurance to all employees of their member organisations. And in Italy, FIDALDO helps employers register their domestic workers to social insurance schemes. Employers’ organisations in France, Italy and Sweden, among other places, also provide dispute mediation services and legal counsel.

Conclusion

Household employers influence the nature of demand for domestic work on a national level and ultimately control the day-to-day experiences and working conditions of domestic workers. The capacity to achieve decent work for domestic workers thus relies heavily on their ability and willingness to manage the employment relationship. Organizations of employers can play a key role in building this capacity of households, and in reducing the cost of care to households, through social dialogue, advocacy, and the provision of services to households. In doing so, they provide important channels through which individual households can make their homes decent workplaces.

This piece is based on research by the International Labour Organization that will be published in 2018.

About the authors

Claire Hobden is the Technical Officer on Vulnerable Workers and coordinator of the ILO strategy on decent work for domestic workers at the ILO. She is also the co-founder and co-coordinator of the Research Network on Domestic Workers' Rights. Twitter: @claire_hobden

Moriah Shumpert holds an MA with a certification in Women’s Studies from Old Dominion University. She has worked as an organiser and scholar-activist with the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union in South Africa and conducted research on the international movement of domestic workers. Her work is influenced by the legacy of feminist anti-racist and anti-capitalist scholar activism and her applied study of labour, migration, and social movements. 

Read On

'Domestic workers speak: a global fight for rights and recognition' showcases the diversity and power of the domestic workers' rights movement. Featuring contributions from 23 worker-led groups, it details the struggle of domestic workers, explores their solidarity and methods of resistance, and calls for comprehensive rights for the world's most invisible workforce.
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