Domestic Workers Begin to See Some Rights

  • by Claudia Ciobanu (bucharest)
  • Wednesday, June 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Puscariu started out as care worker in the Lisbon home of a patient with a mental condition. Even though the Portuguese family she worked for treated her well, she had to be careful not to upset her employers.

'When you are illegal and your work is unregulated, it all depends on the employer, and there is too much pressure to be nice,' she tells IPS. 'There is no sick leave, so if you become ill for a longer period of time, you risk being fired. The same can happen if you want to return to your country for a while to visit your family.'

In Belgium, Puscariu works as a house cleaner, this time legally, as her student visa allows her to work for 20 hours weekly.

'The system is very well set up in Belgium and people are encouraged to hire housekeepers in this country through tax incentives,' Puscariu says. She now works through an agency, and has access to sick leave, vacation pay and insurance.

'Being a domestic worker is not prestigious in Belgium, but it is respected. In Portugal, the family you work for can treat you horribly, thinking 'you're our maid, you are not worth being nice with'.'

Like Puscariu, millions of Eastern European women work in private homes in Western Europe, cleaning or looking after children and the elderly. Precise numbers are hard to pin down since a large number of domestic workers in Europe work illegally. A Romanian or a Bulgarian, for instance, can go into a Western European country without a visa and then overstay the permitted three months without registering and start working informally.

According to WIEGO, an organisation representing women in informal employment worldwide, more than 1.2 million workers provide domestic services in Italy, and over 50 percent of migrant workers in France are domestic workers.

There are more than 100 million domestic workers worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). They form 'one of the largest yet unprotected sectors of the labour force,' it says. The vast majority are women.

According to research conducted between 2006 and 2007 in the UK by Kalayaan - an organisation supporting rights for migrant domestic workers, 84 percent of migrant domestic workers were female. Of these, 86 percent worked more than 16 hours a day, 70 percent complained of psychological abuse, and 56 percent had no private room in the employers' house.

The number of Eastern European domestic workers in Western Europe has boomed over the past decade as the EU enlarged eastward, and concurrent with the privatisation of care services in Western European countries, according to research by social scientist Sarah Schilliger from the Basel Institute for Sociology in Switzerland.

Schilliger's research focuses on care workers assisting elderly people in their homes in Switzerland. However, the features she attributes to doing this kind of job easily apply to most domestic work done by migrant women worldwide: low wages; insecurity of job and lack of social benefits and access to healthcare; blurry line between professional status and being considered a member of the family, which limits the privacy and power of negotiation of the worker; pressure to be always on the job if living in-house; isolation.

Like most domestic work, care work is traditionally considered a female occupation. In Europe, with increasing participation of women in the labour market, care and domestic tasks are increasingly left to migrant women.

In their turn, these women's departure leaves home countries suffering from a 'care deficit'. In Romania more than 25,000 children have both parents working abroad and several cases of children committing suicide among these were attributed by psychologists at least partly to the absence of the parents.

To avoid some of these negative consequences and improve the lives of migrant workers, this care cycle must be acknowledged and integrated in work legislation in all countries, argues Sarah Schilliger. 'Care and care work must be understood as the centre of human life,' the researcher tells IPS. 'Governments must ensure that women's informal care work is covered by labour legislation and understood as a major contribution to the welfare system.'

Some European governments are taking steps in the direction of regularising care and other domestic work but many are lagging behind.

Unionisation of migrant labour is notoriously difficult, and for migrant care workers additional obstacles appear. 'Care workers live and work in the private household and the home is a private space, which makes it difficult to control working conditions,' says Schilliger. 'Secondly, the immigration status is crucial: a worker whose migration status is tied to her employer or is undocumented is extremely vulnerable.'

In spite of this, migrant women are not powerless, stresses Schilliger. 'Non- traditional forms of labour organising are more suited to the specifics of paid domestic work than traditional unionism.'

The efforts of migrant workers groups are paying off. This year, meeting Jun. 2-18, the International Labour Organisation (ILO, the UN agency focused on workers' rights) agreed to consider adopting an international convention for the protection of the rights of domestic workers, including fair working standards and norms regarding social assistance and support.

WIGEO's Karin Pape, coordinator of the international domestic workers' network at the ILO meeting, said that the decision that domestic workers' rights be written into a convention rather than a recommendation - as employers and some governments had wanted - 'is just an important first step.' But the convention still needs to be voted in the ILO plenary next year, and then has to be ratified by the 183 member states.

The activist said that this year domestic workers' groups have to work to persuade employers and many governments that the convention needs to be adopted. Some European governments too are among the skeptics, arguing that an international convention is not necessary because national legislation should be sufficient.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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