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Study Sheds Light on Hidden Plight of Domestic Workers

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9 December 2016

In much of the developed world, most work is formal – people pay taxes and social security contributions granting them access to health care, social benefits, and legal protection to enforce their workers’ rights. But in the developing world, informal work is the norm and protecting informal sector workers’ rights – whether that’s their right to fair pay and working conditions or protection from abusive labour practices – can be difficult.

However, despite the ubiquity of informal work in the developing world, there is a surprising shortage of accurate data and information. This challenge increases for some occupations facing specific challenges, for example work taking place in private environments such as informal domestic work.

IDAY-international is an advocacy group working for quality basic education for all African children. With €0.9 million of European Commission funding over three years, IDAY has collected and crunched telling new data on domestic workers in five African countries: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. IDAY’s report sheds light on the daily realities of a workforce often hidden from view, cooking and cleaning behind closed doors. Their research uncovered some 8.5 million domestic workers in these five African countries of whom 80% are children or young people. You can read their findings here.

Audrey Laviolette is IDAY’s project coordinator and she described many of the conditions endured by the 22,000 domestic workers they interviewed as part of this research as “slavery like”. Many domestic workers in DRC regularly work up to 11 hours a day with no paid time off.

Deborah Bilolo is one of them. She was a school student until one day, her father died and there was no money to pay for her education. Though still only a child, she became one of Africa’s millions of informal sector domestic workers, cooking and cleaning as directed by the husband and wife that employed her with no legal protection or status to complain about her meagre US$15 a month wage.

“In the beginning I had a good relationship with the couple. But then I noticed that her husband hated me more and more,” Deborah told. “Whatever I would do, he would always find that my job was not done properly. One day when I was washing the dishes, a plate fell on the ground and broke. That’s why I was instantly fired.”



Verbal, physical and even sexual abuse were all commonplace among the domestic workers, according to IDAY’s surveys. One in three child domestic workers interviewed in DRC reported they had suffered some kind of sexual harassment in the workplace, usually by their boss or their boss’s family.

In Rwanda, 60% of domestic workers who had been forced to engage in sexual intercourse were girls aged 15-19 years old; 2% were girls younger than 10 years old. 

IDAY is advocating for better legislation to protect domestic workers in the five countries surveyed, including the ratification of the “C189 Domestic Workers Convention” adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2011. To date, 23 countries have ratified the convention, including only two African nations, South Africa and Mauritius, but Ms Laviolette hopes that Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda will soon follow suit. 

The ILO convention on domestic workers was widely considered something of a breakthrough in worker’s rights. Following the adoption of the Convention in 2011, the European Union started a € 4.3 million joint project with the ILO to accelerate the implementation of the convention. The project, which finished in July 2016, contributed to enhancing the rights and reducing the exploitation of migrant domestic workers, by combining global and regional action with country-based interventions along five migration corridors (Nepal – Lebanon, Zimbabwe – South Africa, Paraguay – Argentina, Indonesia – Malaysia and Ukraine – Poland).

“This convention actually gives visibility to these categories, or workers – it also gives them rights and protection and that’s very important,” said Claire Courteille, Director of the ILO Office for European Union and Benelux countries. “It’s also recognizing that domestic work is actually work – as any other work – and I think that’s a major step.”

Women in particular could have much to gain from the wider ratification of this convention.

“The majority of workers that are doing [domestic] work are actually women,” said Ms Courteille. “Because they’re women and because many are migrants, it has been an invisible category of workers, if you want,” said Ms Courteille. “This convention actually gives visibility to that work.”



Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the Head of UN Women. She believes the ILO convention is of the utmost importance for women worldwide.

“It’s critical,” said Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka of the convention. “If countries for instance ratify the convention on domestic workers, we affect immediately millions of women, we make sure that they have a protected job, which means that when they go on maternity [leave] they do not lose their job. We create also a possibility for minimum wage, and in that way they are also able to become credit worthy.”

“And once they have all that,” continued Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka, “it means that they’ve got their own economic standing and they can move away sometimes from relationships that are abusive which they stick by because they feel vulnerable because their job is not secure enough. For women who are migrants, this is an opportunity for them to have money that they can send back home through remittances. So the benefits and the win-win, knock-on [effect] is actually quite huge.”

Dzodzi Tsikata from the Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana has carried out research into the position of domestic workers in her country. She agrees that the ILO convention is a significant step forward, even if it has yet to be ratified in Ghana and to change the realities on the ground for domestic workers.

“So far there has been no concrete change in the position of domestic workers because of the convention,” said Ms Tsikata. “But what the convention has done is to restart a conversation about domestic work and the need to regulate it better in order to improve the conditions of domestic work. It has allowed organisations that have been working for a long time without success in this area to get a new lease of life.”

In Ghana this has led to the establishment of a domestic workers’ union, which is pushing for the ILO convention to be ratified within the country. In this interview, Ms Tsikata talks about the position of informal domestic workers in Ghana:



The International Domestic Worker’s Federation, IDWF, is affiliated to the IUF  as a special group and an institutional member of WIEGO - Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing; an organisation the European Commission has worked with to enhance living and labour conditions in the informal economy. Their European Regional Advisor, Karin Pape, told that since the ILO effectively put domestic workers on the international agenda with the C189 convention, her organization has been lobbying for domestic workers not only to be included in trade union structures but also to be included in national negotiations about workers’ rights, pay and conditions.

But rallying domestic workers and educating them about their rights can be problematic. Unlike, say factory workers, they do not come together at a shared workplace. Instead they organise themselves according to circumstances. Many start of organising themselves in self-help groups, before taking the next step and forming an association or union, or joining an existing union covering this sector. Ms Pape says IDWF helps organise domestic workers into membership based organisations, based on democratic principles. These can be trade unions or take other forms, such as associations. 

“In Asia, it is very common that domestic workers are meeting in public places, so you would organise them there. Or a lot of migrant workers, they go to church on Sunday so that would be the place where you go if you want to meet them,” Ms Pape said.

Hear more about the role of trade unions in this video interview with Ms Pape:



But ratification of the ILO convention is not IDAY’s only goal. They also want to raise awareness among the local populations about domestic workers’ rights in the countries they surveyed as well as increase their access to education and enable them to be seen as professionals in their trade.

“On the other side, …[we] have raised awareness among the population and can already see that some communities are more aware about the issue of child domestic workers and that domestic workers better understand their rights,” said Ms Laviolette.

Most of the domestic workers IDAY interviewed in their study did not live with the family that employed them. But in other countries and parts of the world, it is not uncommon for domestic workers to travel far from their family or even to another country to work. 

As migrant informal workers, who might not speak the language or understand the culture of their country of work and who are obliged to live in the home of their employer, they are even more vulnerable to very serious human rights abuses. These might include human trafficking, child trafficking, sexual exploitation and physical and psychological violence, among others.

“The trade unions have become more aware that [informal domestic work] is a growing sector in Europe too – just think about all the care needs of families,” said Ms Pape. “The demographics show that there will be an increasing need for elderly care and we already have a trend that middle class families, they employ a domestic worker in their home – very often in not very good conditions.”

But the challenges of informal domestic work are not only a problem in developing countries. “If there is an informal economy group in Europe,” said Ms Pape, “then it’s certainly domestic workers.” Coordination between the European Union’s internal and external policies is therefore crucial to address this global issue.

On 24 November 2016, the ILO also published a report Domestic work for migrant domestic workers: Moving the agenda forward based on knowledge generated by the European Commission funded Global Action Programme on Migrant Domestic Workers and their Families. It offers key guidance and recommendations for improving migration policies, awareness raising campaigns and capacity building programmes for domestic workers.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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