Guaranteeing gender equality in the domestic work sector
EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this speech at the 10th anniversary event of the International Labor Organisation on 28 June 2021.
Good morning everybody, it’s very nice to be here today to speak about how we can bring more gender equality into the domestic work sector.
Let’s start with the obvious. The rights of domestic workers and the quality of their jobs are gender equality issues.
In the EU, 95 % of domestic cleaners and helpers are women.
When it comes to those who provide professional care at home, 83 % are women.
And that’s just the figures that are declared.
I am sure that many of us present here today have hired someone to help us at home. To clean our house, for example, or to take care of our ageing parents.
And I am sure that more often than not, these helpers were women. Because the official data is clear: domestic work is predominantly done by women.
The same is true of unpaid domestic labour, which still falls largely on the shoulders of women.
Indeed, for some people here today, especially for some women, hiring someone to help with caring and household tasks will have been the only way you’ve been able to take up paid work. Because otherwise you would have been doing it yourself.
Why? Because domestic labour is critical. Without caring, cooking and cleaning, none of us would get very far. Our societies would quite literally fall apart.
Yet domestic work includes some of the most under-paid and under-valued jobs in the labour market.
For example, 82 % of domestic cleaners and helpers are among the 20 % lowest paid people in the EU. Please remember that the vast majority of these workers are women. That means a very large chunk of the EU’s lowest paid people are women.
Working conditions of domestic workers are also often poor, with some facing abuse and degrading treatment from their employers.
This is partly enabled by the informal nature of much domestic work, with many workers not protected by labour laws, nor eligible for social security. Many domestic workers come from a different country to where they are working, and are at risk of exploitation.
So why is domestic work so under-valued? Part of the reason must surely be because it is carried out in the home, which is still not seen as a place where ‘real’ work takes place.
I saw a study published in the U.K. recently, which highlighted the so-called ‘hidden costs’ of later retirement for women, as they would no longer be able to provide free-of charge care for their older relatives in the home. Instead, the state would have to take on this cost, which the authors of the study seemed to suggest should be provided by women for free instead. There was no suggestion that retired men should be taking on some of care load, or that the state should be providing more support.
This is illustrative of how much we value work done in the home, which is: not very much at all.
So it is perhaps little wonder that we don’t pay domestic workers decent salaries or even give them much respect. They are doing something that we expect women to do for free in their own households, instead of the ‘real’ work that is done outside the home.
So how do we improve the quality of domestic work to better reflect its importance?
The legal route is critical. Domestic workers must be included in all national labour, healthcare, social care and anti-discrimination laws. Informal workers should be brought into the official labour market so they are protected from exploitation. All domestic workers should be able to join trade unions.
The ILO’s domestic workers convention, and the EU’s directive on transparent and predictable working conditions are vital tools to achieve these aims.
It’s interesting to see that one of the EU countries which has ratified the ILO’s Convention is also one of the countries where much has been done to improve the situation of domestic workers.
In Belgium, the state manages the relationship between households needing domestic services and domestic workers. Because domestic services are subsidised, households are incentivised to go via the formal route, which provides domestic workers with increased security.
This approach is also important because it recognises domestic work as something that all households may need, and that the state is in a position to provide.
Not as something that half of Belgium’s population (i.e. women) should be providing free of charge.
This immediately raises the cachet of domestic work. Something you pay for is something you value. Because domestic work is mainly done by women, this can help raise the perceived value of so-called ‘women’s work’ such as caring, cleaning and cooking.
With our societies ageing and set to need more and more care, this is essential. We will need more domestic workers, who should be treated well. We will also be needing more men to join these professions if we are to satisfy demand.
In some places of the labour market, we could be seeing the first winds of change. We recently conducted a study that has not been released yet, which found that across a sample of 10 EU Member States, some 46 % of people providing housekeeping and other home services via online platforms are men.
This is obviously dramatically different to the 5 % of men providing such services in the traditional labour market. While we cannot make a direct comparison between the two figures as they may not include exactly the same kinds of services, this is an extremely interesting development to watch.
So, to summarise, in order to achieve gender equality in domestic work, we need this work to be formalised, we need it to be respected, and we need it to include more men.
All things, I believe we can achieve.