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A Global Approach to Paid Domestic Work and Social Inequalities

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More national initiatives needed to protect the rights of domestic workers

The forces of globalisation greatly impact the social positions and opportunities of domestic workers. Using a cross-country comparison, DomEQUAL identified key influential factors in the promotion and enforcement of domestic workers’ rights and analysed the role of gender.

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There are 52.6 million domestic workers around the world, of which 43 million are women and 7 million children. The International Labour Organization’s Convention 189 was initiated in 2011 to protect the rights of these domestic workers, which had been long neglected. As the Convention makes domestic work an issue of global governance, it has triggered a wealth of activities at both the grassroots and policy levels. Taking advantage of this dynamic situation, the European Research Council-supported DomEQUAL (A Global Approach to Paid Domestic Work and Social Inequalities) project conducted a socio-economic and legal comparison of domestic workers across three continents: South America, Europe and Asia. To better understand domestic workers’ conditions and how they mobilise for their rights, DomEQUAL adopted an intersectional approach, exploring how social and political identities influence experiences of discrimination and privilege. “We found that organisations mobilising for domestic workers’ rights engage a wide range of stakeholders, such as women from very different sociocultural backgrounds,” says principal investigator Sabrina Marchetti from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy. “Attracting the attention of large portions of society gives those movements a powerful political voice.”

Workers’ rights and feminism

The researchers conducted over 200 interviews in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Germany, India, Italy, Spain, Taiwan and the Philippines. These countries were chosen based on their varying globalisation experiences, their specific sociocultural contexts and because they have all experienced organised mobilisation for domestic workers’ rights. During a year’s fieldwork DomEQUAL country-experts interviewed policymakers, activists, trade unionists, academics and other experts about domestic workers’ conditions and movements seeking to advance their rights. A key finding relates to the relationships between domestic workers and feminist groups, between which they found few alliances. “The lack of formal lines of solidarity between them was one of our most unexpected findings,” adds Marchetti. “Despite long-standing questions about the relationship between these two movements, opportunities to tackle it across such a wide range of countries and with such richness of sources, hadn’t existed before.” With domestic workers heavily influenced by feminist critiques, especially regarding gender roles and reproductive labour, the researchers suggest more formal alliances may pave the way forward for increased political impact.

Comparative sociopolitical contexts

Domestic workers’ movements were found to be most effective when part of wider social transformation, such as movements against inequality and gender discrimination or for social justice. This is especially true with national domestic workers and so considered representative of working-class minorities deserving of social advancement. For example, the researchers found that at the beginning of the 2010s in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, domestic workers who were mainly Afro-descendant women and women from indigenous backgrounds, successfully increased their rights under the law. Conversely, during the same years it has proven to be more difficult to achieve similar advancement for domestic workers in countries like Germany, Italy, Spain and Taiwan, where they are usually foreign workers and not nationals of the country in which they work. Regarding the European case studies, Spain has not yet formally ratified C189. In Germany and Italy where C189 has been ratified, the researchers are concerned that it has not been followed through with effective implementation. “We hope our work contributes to the implementation of the European Parliament’s Resolution on the rights of women domestic workers and carers. While these rights have been promoted, they are still not being adequately supported by national initiatives,” concludes Marchetti.


DomEQUAL, domestic workers, rights, International Labour Organization, Convention 189, globalisation, intersectional, feminist, gender, social justice, inequality

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