According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 2.5 million people are employed in the in the care and domestic work sector in Europe. These domestic workers are people working in household services such as childcare, care of the elderly or housekeeping. It can include those who are doing jobs such as cooking, washing, ironing, and cleaning, as well as gardeners, ‘care’ workers, and those on an ‘au pair’ visa who are in reality domestic workers. This work is via a formal or informal employment relationship. I stress the informal employment relationship, as so often the working conditions and treatment of domestic workers can be so varied to the point of illegal.
Often referred to as 'invisible jobs', low pay, irregular residence and employment conditions, no social security or benefits, no access to childcare facilities for their own children and limited time off work are just some of the problems experienced by domestic workers.
Despite representing a large amount of jobs and livelihoods in today's society, the economic and social contribution of domestic workers is simply ignored. Up until recently labour law coverage for domestic workers has been often weak or absent. In 2012 the European Commission began a study in 12 Member States looking at precarious work and social rights.
The study analysed problems relating to temporary contracts, part-time work, gender, age and migrant workers and concluded that the development of non-standard forms of employment and the economic crisis have contributed to an increasing risk of precariousness.
As a result of this, the 2012 EU Employment Package highlighted the need to transform informal or undeclared work into regular employment and that this would have a positive impact on labour demand. In 2014, following the Commission's proposal, the European Council ratified the ILO's Domestic Workers Convention; and in doing so advocates the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy.
But despite these initiatives from European Union Member States, domestic workers are not always offered protection by national labour laws. In addition to this, of the 2.5 million domestic workers in the EU, 88% of them are women. This results in women suffering a double disadvantage when low pay leads to an increasing pay gap, little flexibility leads to a compromised work-life balance and lack of professional recognition contributes to an increase in unpaid labour in the home.
With this in mind, this week the European Parliament will vote on a report from the Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee that calls for the professional recognition and value of domestic work, to reduce undeclared work in the sector and to provide common rules by introducing a framework for pay and conditions. This FEMM Committee initiative also emphasises that domestic workers and carers should be included in national labour and anti-discrimination laws and be allowed to join trade unions.
This is an important signal from the European Parliament to end the exploitation of domestic workers and to help them gain visibility and win rights. If individual Member States, including the UK, were to ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention then this would help domestic workers go from isolation to organisation and give them the proper rights they are entitled to. With women making up the vast majority of domestic workers in the EU it is imperative that we stand up for their employment rights and help to elevate their situation in the labour market.