1st Dec 2023


Women at risk from shoddy EU laws on domestic workers

  • Nine out of ten of the 9.5 million domestic workers in the EU are women. (Photo: Pexels)
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For 9.5 million domestic workers in the EU, access to basic rights such as social security, collective bargaining, or social protection is not always guaranteed.

Of these workers, some 3.1 million are undeclared and nine out of 10 are women.

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Despite providing an essential service (they clean homes, cook meals, or take care of children and the elderly), a number of national laws exclude domestic workers from minimum working standards, as the European Commission itself notes.

And the pandemic exacerbated long-standing social and labour gaps in legislation, according to a report by the International Labour Organization(ILO).

First, because there is a lack of recognition of the real value of this work, known at the EU level as "personal and household service workers".

"The domestic economy produces value through invisible work, which contrasts with the visible work taking place in the public sphere, but complements it," says a report by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Even at the EU level, the directive on health and safety at work explicitly excludes domestic servants from this protection in the workplace.

Secondly, the enforcement of their rights in a private space such as the home poses other problems, exposing them to greater exploitation, isolation, and lack of balance between family and personal life.

"In the world of work, the public-private divide has defined the reach of labour law," wrote ETUI researcher Kalina Arabadjieva.

"Work performed in the home has traditionally either been excluded from labour protection altogether or else accorded a lower degree of it", she said.

Moreover, 12 years after the adoption of ILO convention 189 (which recognises them as workers and essential service providers), only a third of member states have ratified it — Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Malta, and Finland.

And implementation of the international treaty even in the legislation of these nine countries is less and less homogeneous, Grace Papa, policy officer of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture, and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), told EUobserver.

The ILO convention includes provisions on health and safety, living wages, the right to organise and bargain collectively, and protection from violence against women, among other issues.

In July, MEPs asked the commission whether it had any plans to take further action to ensure recognition of these workers or ratification of the convention by member states.

The EU executive responded this September with a communication from last year referring to the European care strategy, in which it called on the EU-27 "to address gaps in implementation and enforcement of EU labour law and working conditions acquis in the care sector and to ratify and implement ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers".

EFFAT considers that a council recommendation would be necessary to provide member states with guidelines, recognition of good practices, priorities and next steps.

'Systematic violations'

When working undeclared and undocumented, the situation for these people becomes even more complicated. They receive no pension and usually limited or no sick leave or health insurance, even if they get a minimum wage.

"All of these things mean they are facing systematic labour rights violations, and they are always at risk and precarious," Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) spokesperson Lilana Keith also told EUobserver.

Exercising your rights as a worker or negotiating your working conditions with your employer becomes even more complicated if you fear it could lead to immigration enforcement.

"Things go wrong precisely because people know that if you are in an undocumented situation, you are not able to stand up for your rights in the same way as someone who has a secure situation," Keith said.

And not having access to any kind of authority to stand up for your basic rights without risking immigration enforcement facilitates abuse, she said.

"The power dynamics that that creates means that it's actually driving exploitation against migrant women because they're seen as an easy target," PICUM's spokesperson added.

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