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Regulating or awareness-raising to avoid severe exploitation? Employers in the migrant domestic sector

People who hire domestic workers often neglect their responsibilities as employers. In such cases awareness raising is crucial along with regulation to protect domestic workers’ interests.

Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Domestic work is a very special sector of employment today that is dominated by migrant (both EU and non EU) workers and which may include severe cases of exploitation. The issue is particularly challenging because the sector is usually considered as one that can be neither regulated nor made transparent like other areas of the labour market. This is due to the private nature of the workplace – the home – and the intimate character of the job undertaken: looking after a young child or elderly parent, or fulfilling house chores that concern one’s everyday private life. In addition, the privatisation of care and welfare that has been taking place across Europe in the last couple of decades and the concomitant increase of migrant flows has encouraged a proliferation of paid domestic work: it is no longer only the affluent families that hire domestic and care workers – an increasingly large sector of the middle and lower middle classes do that too.

When doing research on the different moral and emotional tensions that employers face, one realises that employers rarely conceive of themselves as such. They are not like big firms that employ workers to manufacture goods nor are they like land owners or agricultural entrepreneurs interested in securing a seasonal labour force. They are involved in a sector that does not produce any product nor any profit – they pay for the service, for as long as the service is needed. They are often not familiar with either the legal or the managerial aspects of hiring and overseeing someone. This, of course, can have the positive effects of being grateful to the care worker or of treating her/him as ‘one of the family’, but it may also have the negative effects of not respecting the labour rights of the worker or of truly exploiting her/him.

Given the special nature of care work, the moral aspects of the employers’ experience are quite important for the employers themselves. In fact, probably no employer hiring a worker in another sector poses to her/himself so many questions about whether having a care worker or indeed a baby sitter is the ‘right’ thing to do. Nor do they question how it fits with the overall values about family life, inter-generational solidarity, or indeed social equality.

One of the reasons for this moral questioning is not just the intimacy of the job but the ambivalence that surrounds the relationships between employers, care givers, and other members of the household, notably elderly parents or children. Moral dilemmas arise for employers also because paid domestic work is often provided by undocumented migrant workers. Thus, the employers are often heavily implicated in the regularisation of the migrant worker and may bear the administrative and financial costs that relate to that status shift. Indeed, they make even seek to block that process by withholding information or refusing to pay welfare contributions.

Employers of paid domestic workers may be distinguished into two main categories: ‘employers as agents of social change’ and ‘employers as preservers of traditions’. The first category includes employers such as the working mothers of young children or the daughters of elderly parents. For these individuals, hiring a domestic worker/babysitter/elderly carer is a way to pursue new models of parenthood and family life that do not forcefully entail a long, daily, physical commitment towards their family members. One may talk of the search for a ‘modern’ version of domesticity that combines responsibilities towards loved ones with paid work and a professional career, inevitably reducing the amount of time spent as the mater-familia in the home.

The second category of employers include those who have to delegate the actual performance of care and domestic work to paid workers, but who would probably prefer to do the work themselves. Lack of time and energy, distance from their children or parents, and commitment towards other family members are usually the reasons why these employers cannot directly take charge of the care of their relatives or even clean their own apartments. Thus employing someone is a second best option, but it comes at the cost of also feeling guilt or betrayal. This type of employer expresses discomfort in the employment relationship. In so doing, they put forward traditional views on commitment towards their households.

However, for either category, particularly when clear and practical regulation of the sector is missing, it is easy to go down a slippery slope of violating workers’ rights and abusing their vulnerable conditions. Such problems though are hardly addressed by stricter regulation of the sector, as this oftentimes has the opposite effect of pushing families-as-employers to avoid registration and regulation altogether. Rather, what is necessary is awareness campaigns which make the employers reflect on what is a reasonable salary and what are fair conditions of work for someone who works for their family. Alerting them to the facts that too low a salary is unsustainable, that migrant domestic workers have family lives too, and that all workers need some time for privacy and relax would go a long way towards preventing unintentional exploitation. In this sense, it is very important that trade unions, domestic workers’ organisations, and international actors take a stand to promote the ratification of the ILO convention on the rights of domestic workers, which defines what is fair employment in this sector.

As European societies age and welfare states become more versatile, there is a need for putting in place flexible systems of care and family support that provide much needed assistance to the families without leading to migrant workers’ exploitation.

For more information, please see Anna Triandafyllidou and Sabrina Marchetti’s edited volume ‘Employers, Agencies and Immigration: Paying for Care’ (Ashgate, 2015).

About the authors

Anna Triandafyllidou is a full professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence, Italy.

Sabrina Marchetti (PhD) is Research Associate at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute in Florence. She specialises on issues of gender, welfare, labour and migration, with a specific focus on the question of migrant domestic work. Amongst her publications: “Black Girls. Migrant Domestic Workers and Colonial Legacies” (Brill, 2014) and “Employers, Agencies and Immigration: Paying for Care” (Ashgate 2015, with Anna Triandafyllidou). For more info see her personal website


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