The struggle of domestic workers, a story you should understand

By Emaediong Ofonime Akpan

“Because of domestic workers, employers fulfill their basic civic responsibility to have proper homes and raise good families.”

Atty. Hans Leo J. Cacdac, POEA Administrator

“The struggle of domestic work is to be recognized as ‘real work’ – its historical roots in slavery, its association with women’s unpaid household labor, its largely immigrant and women of color workforce and exclusion from legal protections devalue their work.”

‘‘A growing number of countries are taking measures to improve the living and working conditions of domestic workers. But the momentum needs to be stepped up to ensure that domestic workers worldwide enjoy labour rights, just like other workers.’’

Domestic work is one of the oldest occupations and among the most vital for the functioning of households and society as a whole. Several factors explain the sharp increase in demand for this work in recent years.

Domestic work entails tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, elderly or sick members of a family, gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, and even taking care of household pets (ILO, 2011b).In general, domestic workers perform more than one of these activities in their workplace.

Domestic workers typically work in private homes, performing various household tasks, such as cleaning, gardening and caring for children or elderly people (the latter are also known as ‘care workers’). This type of work is gendered, and most of the times done by women.

Domestic work was delineated as a separate area of work when productive and reproductive work got separated. During Victorian times this type of work was performed by ‘menial or domestic servants’ for middle and high class families, and with the decline in domestic servant employment the weekly cash in hand cleaner has become important for professional couples.

At the post-war period a shift occurred from the model of the ideal family with a single wage earning male head of household, to the ideal family being comprised of dual wage earners.

This new model of family life required accommodations of new patterns of work and family-life , which resulted, among other things, in an increasing need for domestic labour. These include women’s increased participation in the labour force, the desire of women who work to reconcile work and family life, gaps in care services provided by the State, the increase in the feminization of international migration, and the ageing of the population, among others.

In many countries around the world a strong social and cultural acceptance of this form of work, coupled with a high level of underestimation of the risks of exploitation and violence against these child domestic workers, still persists.

Domestic work is still perceived by large sections of the society as a non-professional  occupation and, as mentioned above, domestic workers largely operate in a shadowy and informal economy that recognises neither their contractual obligations nor their status as professionals.

Domestic work is a valuable, but often unrecognized, contribution to the well-being of families and to the functioning of economies and societies. Often performed by family members, particularly women, it is neither recognized as a formal component of the economy nor properly compensated. When done by hired labour, it is often not included in the labour laws of the country.

Therefore, domestic workers do not enjoy the full protection of labour laws and they are often underpaid and asked to work overtime. Domestic work has come to the fore of international attention with the adoption of ILO Convention 189 and recommendation  2011concerning Decent work for domestic workers by the International Labour Conference in 2011.

On the 100th session of the International Labour Conference, in June 2011, the ILO adopted Convention No 189 and supplementing Recommendation No 201 regulating the terms and conditions of work for domestic workers. This was a landmark moment. It was a landmark moment for domestic workers whose participation in the paid labour market and specific working conditions were recognised for the first time in a holistic manner within a legal document. It was also a landmark moment for the international labour law regime that incorporated within the ILO documents a human rights approach, which is sectorally  based, stemming from the view that although domestic work is ‘work like any other’, it should also be treated as ‘work like no other’.

According to the most recent estimates available, in 2012, the number of children engaged in paid or unpaid work in the home of a third part was estimated to be around 17 million of children aged 5-17 years. Thousands of children around the globe are working in others’ households, providing services like cleaning, ironing, cooking, gardening, taking care of other children, etc. ILO Convention 189 of 2011 describes domestic work as “work performed in or for a household or households ” and a domestic worker as “ any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship ”.

This global phenomenon involves a great number of people both adults and children. According to the last estimate from ILO throughout the world there are over 53 million people who work in domestic service, making them one of the largest yet unprotected segments of the labour force. However, these estimates could be even conservative: data collection on domestic work is in fact often one of the first challenge to face when it comes to the protection and advocacy for this category of workers; data on this phenomenon is not always reliable and numbers are often based on estimates because of the large grey area where it occurs.

The positive effect of paid domestic work for contemporary society cannot be underestimated. With changes happening in the labour market, including the growth of the service economy, higher participation of women in the market, the sharing of household tasks by men, and globalization, it has become clear that having domestic workers is beneficial for family members, the employers and the market as a whole. In today’s economic setting, domestic work is vital for the sustainability and function of the economy outside the household.

Domestic labour can also be a desirable job for workers who are not highly skilled and might not easily be employable in other occupations. Domestic workers are not always low-skilled, though; they are sometimes educated, and migrate to work in the domestic labour sector in order to send income back to their home countries.). Like other jobs, domestic work can be fulfilling: the worker develops a personal relationship of trust with the employer, sometimes to a degree higher than other jobs, and may feel highly valued for the services provided. Yet the particularities of domestic work set challenges too.

Much of the domestic labour workforce is composed of migrants who are often preferred by the employers to the country’s nationals, particularly if they are live-in domestic workers. The intimacy that often characterises the relationship between the employer and the domestic worker makes her seem like a family member – not a worker. This sense of intimacy can be false, though,because the relationship between the domestic worker and the employer, who is a woman most of the times, is characterised by a difference of status that the latter is often keen to maintain.

Domestic work is hard to regulate, being invisible because it is performed in the privacy of the employer’s household. The location of domestic labour makes the workers more vulnerable to abuse by the employers. Domestic labour also has a stigma attached to it, because it is the poorest and neediest that are occupied in it, and due to the tasks required from the workers, which are gendered and undervalued.

Domestic work is prone to precariousness for social (gender, race, migration and social class), psychological (intimacy and stigma), and also economic reasons.

Some notable terminologies 

Domestic work is defined as work performed in a private household in the framework of a work relationship through which the employed person receives remuneration. The ILO’s Convention no.189 defines domestic work as work performed in or for a household or households and domestic worker as any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship.

The problems of domestic work. 

The problems associated with domestic work do not require a great amount of energy to be discovered. They are not like diamonds buried deep in the earth crust, yet it has continued to plague our justice system and legislative bodies, whether this is a deliberate attempt to stoke the slavery spirit associated with domestic work still remains a mystery.

The problems of domestic work generally can be sumed up into its struggle to be notices and accorded the prestige given other forms of labour. From being seen as demeaning to being seen as an easy job that need not be appreciated domestic workers continue to struggle with the status proble.

One is tempted to ask further like a sojourner who must go on could the single fact that domestic work needs no formal education as a pre-requisite to qualify be a major setback to its status problem? It also beats the imagination that companies makes millions inventing household cleaning equipments and kitchen utensils yet the users are accorded no respect.

It may not be wrong to say that the general outlook on domestic workers is a back that is ready to bend, palms hard enough to do the cleaning, mouth big enough to contain the murmur, stomach small enough to consume no food, legs strong enough to stand all day, eyes small enough to require less sleep but big enough to spot the tiniest speck of dirt; these qualifications are seemingly no different from that required of a slave from his master.

The problems of domestic work range from:
Regulation of working hours: It is common knowledge that domestic work is not always performed in offices where we have strict time regulations or it is open to public assessments. They are performed in homes where rules on privacy would bar any attempt to check-in on any domestic worker. It is dificult to ascertain working hours.
Restrictions on Change of employer: Some jurisdictions have strict rules on change of employers.

A domestic worker is not at liberty to change his employer at will. Most common reason could be the contract terms which only stipulates the duration of the contract and gives no options as to the employee’s escape route should he wish to terminate such contract. At other times the terms like bail conditions are too stringent and unattainable.

Dismissal: In domestic work the employer has always had the higher bargaining power and one of such is the power to dismiss a worker.

The courts are hardly approached to resolve these issues even in circumstances where they are dismissed without pay. A domestic worker in a jurisdiction where domestic work is not recognised is on a frolick of their own, this situation is compounded where there are no formal contract papers or the worker in question is an illegal immigrant.

Live-in conditions/Status of the workers:

The problems of domestic work when viewed in the light of their living conditions (is having to live with their employer) and their status as illegal /illegal immigrants takes one on a journey through the era of slave trade and the racial discriminations a mammoth plague manifesting in various forms. It is either the domestic worker is an illegal immigrant who has no documentations, no record of him anywhere as such erasing them will be like clicking the delete button of a computer. An undocumented domestic worker is the mercy of their employer who probably has their passport  and other travel documents or has lured them with a promise to regularise them. They are consciously being degraded, used and often not compensated.

For societies plagued with racial discrimination legal immigrants with genuine issues do already know they earn no chance in getting justice. The cycle continues, nobody speaks out those who attempt to are clamped down or erased like writings done with pencils.


Domestic work cannot thrive on its own without the co-operation of the State and Voluntary organisations. Fear of deportation is the fertile grown on which the evils associated with the non-recognition of domestic work thrives.

Domestic work is real work but it is yet to cured of the attendant issues which stand on its way to stardom.  Domestic work is the only sector on which all other sector depends as such it should be seen as being more than a women’s thing or a slaves thing to being seen as honourable  work.

About the author. 

Akpan, Emaediong Ofonime is one of Nigeria’s leading voice for the recognition of domestic work as real work, a born human rights activist, she is currently doing LLM in consumer protection. She has written numerous comments piece for Trendiee and many other news media. You can contact her via akpanemaediongofonime @gmail.com

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Written by Abel Udoekene Jnr

Abel is a blogger, a social media strategist and a small business influencer.


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NditoekaGloria AdamsDavid GutierrezMark Radcliffe Recent comment authors
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Mark Radcliffe
Mark Radcliffe

Domestic workers should really be treated fine

David Gutierrez
David Gutierrez

Wonderful article

Gloria Adams
Gloria Adams

The labor force has a lot to do to make this work. It’s not a one man affair


True, domestic work is real work

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